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Crowns, Concerts, and Composers, Oh My!

April 11, 2009 at 5:23 am
By Laura Roberts, Ben Tyler, and Tigan Harrison

This past Wednesday, several of us attended a concert in the "Bolshoi Zal" (Big Hall) of the famous Moscow Conservatory, named for Tchaikovsky and founded by Nikolai Rubinstein and Prince Nikolai Petrovich Roubetzkoi in 1866.  The event was a benefit for the Rostropovich Foundation, named for Mstislav Leopol'dovich Rostropovich, a cellist and conductor said to be among the best of the 20th century.  The musicians played pieces from Mozart, Schnittke (a Soviet composer strongly influenced by the works of Dmitri Shostakovich), and, of course, Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony.  Yuri Bashmet, one of the world's leading viola players, conducted the concert.  We were thrilled to attend such a brilliant concert.  The brass section and timpani, so think the authors, were particularly sharp and had excellent tone.

Moscow Conservatory 

 While most of the group had no difficulty reaching the Conservatory, one of our number discovered the full beauty of the Moscow Metro at rush hour. A conservative estimate would put between 700 and 1000 people funneling into a single escalator while this delinquent student prayed for cell phone service 50 meters underground.  The student did eventually arrive (rather out of breath) after hastily traversing the several blocks between the Lenin Library station and the Duma building once or twice.

 Once all were seated, Bashmet opened the event with a few anecdotes about Rostropovich, under whom he studied. Perhaps the most amusing (explained to us during the intermission by D.O.) was a comment about this concert being "na troikh" a piece of Soviet slang for inviting two others (strangers and friends alike) to help finish a bottle of vodka, since three were needed.  The term is particularly humorous as it pertains to the Schnittke piece, also called "na troikh".  It was written in 1994 for Rostropovich, Bashmet, and Gidon Kramer, a violinist, and divides the orchestra into 3 sections that play at separate times.

The entire group had the opportunity to visit the armory on Monday to see the great and frivolous treasures of the imperial families through the ages.  Fortunately, we were given a very detailed tour in English.  Several rooms of the collection were dedicated to gold and porcelain dinnerware.  In the early centuries of the tsar’s rule, the tsar presented his bride with a headdress on an elaborate dish.  Some of the wine goblets had stones that, supposedly, changed color when its contents were poisoned.  During large feasts, a cup called a Bratina, derived from the Russian word for brother, was passed around.  There was even a cup designed especially for drinking games: a bell on top would ring when tipped, and if it rang when someone drank from it, the drinker would have to take another quaff.


Other highlights from the Armory include a carriage with fixed wheels (requiring a team of servants to hoist the entire contraption into the air when the road turned), a throne with eight hundred diamonds, multiple dresses with trains of fifteen feet or longer, and the one example of thrift: jewels from imperial crowns being stripped from those of previous rulers and recycled.  The collection also included Peter the Great’s first throne (two seats for the co-ruling brothers, and a window for the elder sister), and an immense golden clock with golden eagles feeding pearls to eaglets at regular intervals.


All in all we were exposed to the many wondrous Russian cultural treasures of the past and present.  From the glittering crown jewels to the soaring concert notes, Russia is a country with impressive cultural gifts that are no less astounding now than they were when first created.  It’s amazing that we have been able to see and hear so much of it after only a few weeks in the nation’s capital.