No doubt many of you have been wondering where I had disappeared to and what I have been up to over the past couple of months.
Wonder no more. All shall be revealed. 🙂
Earlier this month, my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, had the privilege of taking part in the Fifth European Jewish Music and Choir Festival, held this year in St. Petersburg, Russia. Naturally, this had required much rehearsal time – at a time when we were also busy with several other projects, such as the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual Gala, the Chamber Choir’s own end-of-year concert (which was also a fundraiser for our journey to Russia) and a singalong performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” which took place only a few days before we were due to fly (via Moscow) to “the Venice of the North”. In addition to all the time and energy devoted to preparations for the journey, I – and other members of my family – were also busy with preparations for an important family event (about which, more later).
This trip marked the first time I used my Israeli passport for anything other than exiting Israel. Usually, for reasons of convenience, I use my British passport while abroad, since most of my travels have been within the EU and (until now, at least), there has therefore been no need to obtain a visa. What will happen after Brexit is anybody’s guess. Even when I travelled with JOCC to New York, in 2010, my UK passport made me eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. However, it turns out that while Israeli nationals do not require a visa to visit Russia (and that is something no one even dreamed of, when I got my first Israeli passport more than four decades ago), nationals of almost every other country do. The two Americans and the German citizen in our group had to go running back and forth to the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv – and the German citizen, one of our basses, eventually gave up and didn’t come on the trip.
Trips abroad with JOCC are almost invariably enlivened by hitches of greater or lesser severity. Arriving at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, early in the afternoon of Wednesday July 5th, we were met by a representative of our hosts, who informed us that we had to wait 20 minutes or so for another choir which was due to arrive and travel with us to the same hotel. The 20 minutes turned into over an hour, during which we whiled away the time doing what we nearly always do in such situations. We started singing. Judging by the number of passers-by who whipped out mobile phones to film us, we didn’t give too bad a performance 😉
When the other choir (or rather, choirs) eventually arrived, we were exceedingly irritated by the fact that they were sent off directly to the hotel, whereas we had to wait for another coach. As a result, we arrived at the Azimut Hotel two hours later than planned. We had intended to dump our suitcases and go directly to the Hermitage Museum, for which we had pre-paid tickets (valid for six months) and which is open till 21:00 on Wednesdays. However, by now, we were all hungry so instead, we went out for our first glimpse of the city and to find somewhere to eat. As a result, we missed the Welcome Party (at which, apparently, there was no real food) which caused some ill will. But after being kept hanging around at the airport for almost two hours, I hold that a decent meal was a necessity and so my conscience is clear.
My first impressions of St. Petersburg are of a beautiful, majestic city which, with its rivers and canals, strongly reminded me of Amsterdam, rather than Venice.
Returning to the hotel at about 22:00, I was able to enjoy the splendid sunset (St. Petersburg is so far north – on the same line of latitude as Oslo – that it doesn’t get completely dark till after midnight in July and the dawn breaks at about 2.30 AM) before going to bed after a very long day which had started when I got up at 3.30 AM on Wednesday morning to catch my 07:00 AM Aeroflot flight to Moscow.
That was the view from my room on the fifth floor. The views from the Sky Bar, on the 18th floor, were no less spectacular!
The following day, Thursday, started with a rehearsal in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, of three pieces to be sung at the Gala Concert by the combined choirs – over five hundred singers, together with the orchestra. One of these pieces was Israel’s National Anthem – Hatikvah. Who would have imagined, thirty or forty years ago, that in Israel’s 70th year, Jewish choirs from all over Europe – including two local Jewish choirs from St. Petersburg – would be singing the Israeli National Anthem here in St. Petersburg? St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was known during the Soviet era) where, under the Czarist regime, Jews – who were normally confined to the Pale of Settlement – required a special permit to live and where, under the Communists, Jews could live – but could not be Jews.
I think I was not the only one with a lump in my throat.
The opening concert of the Festival was that evening, at the St. Petersburg State Capella, which started life as the St. Petersburg Court Chapel and which is also known as the Academic Glinka Capella or the St. Petersburg Music House. We were amused to note that the presentation was strongly reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest, with two compères, one male, who spoke in Russian and one female, who presented the singers in heavily-accented English. The ten participating choirs were preceded by a full-throated non-Jewish Russian choir. I didn’t catch the name of the choir but I believe it was the Capella’s own choir .
Our choir was one of the first to perform.
Each choir presented a short programme of 3 or 4 songs. Even so, with so many choirs taking part and with introductions in between by the compères in two languages, as well as an interval between the two halves of the concert, what was supposed to be a two hour concert actually took almost four hours. No wonder, when everyone was enjoying themselves so much.
Nor was that the end of the evening because the concert was followed by a reception and a dance party (with real food, this time) back at the hotel, where the festival participants were beguiled by the music of a klezmer band until the early hours of the morning.
The following morning, Friday, the organisers had laid on a coach tour of St. Petersburg for us. After seeing the main sights, such as The Bronze Horseman (a statue of Peter the Great), the monument to Catherine the Great, the Kazan Cathedral, the Sphinxes on the University Embankment facing the Imperial Academy of Arts, the Admiralty Building, the Hermitage Museum – in front of which, some kind of military graduation ceremony was taking place
and the Church on Spilled Blood which we had seen on our first evening and where we now had the opportunity to be photographed in full Russian aristocratic regalia
and also to experience Russian public toilets – where they have some strange ideas about what the people who use them might be tempted to get up to –
to name but a few, we arrived at the Grand Choral Synagogue, where we were welcomed by the Chief Rabbi of St. Petersburg, Menachem Mendel Pewzner, who got us all singing – another emotional moment it would have been hard to imagine forty years ago.
After a (very) light lunch at the synagogue, we were free until Kabbalat Shabbat later that evening.
And that is how we found ourselves at the famous Sever Bakery and Cafe on the even more famous Nevsky Prospect, sitting at an outside table, watching the passersby, sipping cappucino and sampling to-die-for pastries, such as these:
Returning on the Metro (deeper than any undergound railway I have ever seen, anywhere – I was told that the Soviets built their Metro lines so deep as to allow for them to serve as bunkers and bomb shelters in the event of a nuclear war with the United States, but I am not sure this was the real reason), I barely had time for a shower before it was time to go downstairs for Kabbalat Shabbat and the festive Shabbat meal.
This was another emotional experience, the participating choirs taking turns to sing Shabbat evening songs. We had a hit with Shabbat Hamalka (Shabbat the Queen), which was also the first item in our concert the following afternoon (see a video of the whole concert below).
The following morning, we walked to the Hermitage Museum and spent a rather frenetic couple of hours there. In fact, for me, it was also frantic for a good part of the time, as I became separated from the rest of the group. I had hoped to see the museum’s Impressionist collection, but that is housed in a separate wing and the tickets we had purchased on the internet prior to leaving Israel could only be used once in each of the different buildings of the Hermitage. So I contented myself with relics of Ancient Egypt, mediaeval and renaissance Italian paintings and 17th century Dutch art. The museum buildings are themselves pretty impressive, as these pictures show:
I do, however, greatly regret not having caught so much as a glimpse of the famous Hermitage cats!
Of course, it is impossible to see more than the merest fraction of the museum’s collection on a two and a half hour visit – and, in any case, I think two to three hours at a time is as much as most people can manage without going into meltdown. (When I visit London, I usually make two or three visits to the National Gallery or the British Museum, over a course of several days.)
Besides, as I already mentioned, we had a concert that afternoon – at the Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul on the Nevsky Prospect. This concert included Adon Olam, with the solo sung by Yours Truly. It was the third item on the programme and you can find it at 6:50 on the recording below.
Some of us had hoped to be able to return to the Hermitage after the concert, but this concert, like its predecessor, went on longer than expected. Two other choirs also took part, both of them local choirs – the Choir of Jewish Song Lovers “Eva”, part of the St. Petersburg EVA Charitable Foundation, and the EVA Jewish Youth Choir – something else that would have been unthinkable in the Soviet era. It is particularly heartwarming to know that Jewish life in the former Soviet Union has enjoyed such a comeback that there is a new generation ready to carry on the tradition!
The following day, a group of us visited Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Russian version of Versailles, in the western suburbs of St. Petersburg. As we had a concert that evening at the renowned Mariinsky Concert Hall and had to be back in town for a rehearsal there by early afternoon, we knew we would not have time to see both the palace and the gardens and so we opted for the gardens. Tickets for the gardens alone can be purchased at a separate ticket office behind the palace.
The gardens and parklands surrounding the Palace (or rather, palaces) are beautiful. Some are in the formal style to be found at Versailles, others more closely resemble an English country estate:
One of the lesser “palaces” to be found on the grounds is Peter the Great’s private “retreat” – Marly Palace. It looks out over a man-made lake which is crossed by a couple of elegant bridges.
On one of these bridges we decided, quite spontaneously, to entertain the ducks by rehearsing our pieces for that night’s Gala Concert.
I have to hand it to them, they were a very enthusiastic audience 😉
As we sang, more and more of them gathered around to listen, as did a couple of park keepers.
Peterhof is actually situated on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, so if you are a seashore buff, as I am, you can wander down to the beach and watch the seagulls.
Peterhof is most famous for its fountains and gilded statues. Most famous of all is the Grand Cascade which is switched on and plays to a musical accompaniment at exactly 11 AM.
To save time, we decided to return to St. Petersburg by hydrofoil. Back in town, we found that several major streets had been closed for the White Nights Marathon. While none of us can claim to be Marathon runners, we had to leg it pretty fast over to the Mariinsky Concert Hall, for our rehearsal. Then some of us went out to eat but I thought a shower would be a better pick-me-up so I walked back to the hotel (it’s a quarter hour walk), where I found others had had the same idea. I had less than an hour to rest but we took a taxi back to the Mariinsky, where we had now to rehearse the three pieces to be sung by all the choirs together. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Fortunately, backstage at the Mariinsky (this was the new concert hall), there is a cafeteria where, for the price of no more than 90 Rubles (less than 6 shekels!) I could have a cup of much needed tea and a smoked salmon sandwich before it was time to dress for the concert.
Rather unnervingly, our choir was on first.
On the other hand, that meant that once our performance was over, we could sit back and enjoy the rest of the concert. Like the previous two concerts, this one also lasted much longer than anticipated – and was followed by a Farewell Party in the Grand Choral Synagogue, after which many members of our group went on a night cruise on the Neva. I was not one of them. I intended to go – but when I got to the meeting place with another member of the group, and found the boat about to leave, no-one else from our group was there. I decided to go back to the hotel, as we were supposed to be leaving the following morning at 6 AM, to catch a 9:20 AM flight.
Silly me. It turns out that everyone else had left on another boat, with English-speaking commentary. I could kick myself. I would have liked to see the bridges opening.
However, it’s not worth eating myself up about all the things I could/should have done but didn’t. At least I got a few hours of sleep that night. The others got back to the hotel at about 2:30 AM, and still had to pack. And I can always look at their pictures.
I was up at 5:25 the following morning. When I checked my WhatsApp messages, I saw that our departure from the hotel had been postponed to 6:30 to allow us to eat breakfast. Unfortunately, the coach which was supposed to transport us to the airport failed to materialise!
Mild panic ensued, there were frantic phone calls to the organisers, who called the hotel and had them organise taxis to take us to the airport (at no charge to us, I must add). When we finally got there, we discovered that our flight had been been postponed to 10 o’clock. Would we reach Moscow in time for our connecting flight?
We landed in Tel Aviv slightly earlier than anticipated and arrived back in Jerusalem just as several major traffic arteries were being closed in preparation for the Maccabiah Night Run.
My brother had arrived from England the day before – to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday with a party we had been planning for the best part of 6 months. This took place two days after my return.
In the same way as the celebration of Jewish music we had just attended in St. Petersburg represented the victory of the Jewish spirit over the Soviet regime which had tried to destroy our nation spiritually, so the celebration of my father’s 90th birthday represented the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the Nazi monsters who tried to wipe out our nation physically. When my father, a frightened 12-year-old boy, sailed for England at the end of August 1939, one of the few fortunate Jewish refugee children from Europe (less than 10,000) allowed in as part of the Kindertransport, I doubt that he, or his parents (whom he was never to see again) imagined that 78 years later, he would be celebrating his 90th birthday in his own home in Jerusalem, capital of the independent Jewish State of Israel, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
And yes – I thought of that too, as we sang Hatikvah in St. Petersburg, and wondered how many more could have been saved if we had then had a state of our own.
Shabbat Shalom to you all.