Big Shot

There are many wonderful concert halls in the world, but
there is none like Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia.
There can't be, because this unique building was not intended to
be a concert hall at all. Rather, it was designed, in the early
18th Century, as a special place for the Russian aristocracy to
hold their royal balls.

Although the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall is the home
of one of the world's great symphony orchestras, it is not nearly
as large as most concert halls around the world. Neither does it
have an outstanding decor except, perhaps, for the six large
chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The simplicity of the hall is
particularly surprising in a city renowned for its lavish palaces,
including those of Catherine the Great, one of which is now the
famous Hermitage Museum.

The shape of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic auditorium is
a simple rectangle, with white pillars along all four sides that
support a surrounding balcony. Seating on the balcony is only
two rows deep, making it a favorite place to view the entire
orchestra. The main floor is filled with straight rows of plain, but
comfortable, seats facing a plain, simple stage. The total seating
capacity is less than five hundred.

Because of the relatively small capacity of the hall,
concerts are performed there five or even six nights a week
nearly year round. Actually, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic is
comprised of two virtually indistinguishable orchestras. These
two orchestras, plus guest orchestras, perform on alternate
evenings to meet the large demand for classical music.

I arrived in Leningrad, which St. Petersburg was then
called, in the summer of 1991 and promptly became a regular at
the symphony. A ticket at that time cost S 1. 75, so admission for
me and a guest or two, plus refreshments afterward, seldom
came to more than a ten dollar bill. Over the next four years, it
was a rare week when I didn't attend two or three concerts, with
an occasional night at the opera or Marinsky ballet thrown in.
For a lover of good music, things couldn't have been better.

On one occasion my guest was an American mathematics
professor on sabbatical who came to St. Petersburg to teach at
one of the local universities. I got two good seats for us, sixth
row center. In this hall anyone sitting in the sixth row could
watch the fingering of the reed players and almost read the
conductor's score. Usually I sat further back as I didn't like to
hear the scratching of fiddle bows and the rattle of sheet music
being turned.

The American professor and I arrived early and were
chatting away when the musicians began to enter and take their
places. One of the first to enter was a woman cellist wearing the
customary black formal dress and carrying her instrument. As
she took her seat, she looked down at the audience, noticed me,
nodded, and smiled. I nodded back. Shortly the first violist, a
man, entered, looked at me, nodded, and took his seat. I
nodded back. The professor and I resumed chatting while the
other musicians took their places.

When all members had arrived, and after the customary
pause, the con,certmiester entered, acknowledged the applause
of the audience, and took his place in the first chair, front row of
the violin section. As he sat down, he looked at the audience,
saw me, and nodded. I nodded back.

At that point, the math professor turned, looked straight at
me, and said: "Who the hell are you, anyway?" "Later", I said,
and the concert began.

At intermission, my guest, his curiosity nearly killing him,
said he wanted to know how it was that musicians in the St.
Petersburg Philharmonic knew me. The answer showed what an
important person I was in this former capital of Czarist Russia. It
was -- I had e-mail.

Here is the story. The previous summer a visiting American
conductor, Neil Stulberg, and I happened to meet at intermission
during an afternoon chamber music concert in a palace on
Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg. Conductor
Stulberg was acquainted with several of the St. Petersburg
musicians, with whom he wanted to correspond when he got
back home. When he learned that I had e-mail, which very few
people in Russia had at that time, he asked if I would mind
relaying messages to his musician friends after he returned
home. I said I'd be happy to do so.

The following Saturday night at the Philharmonic, Neil
conducted a Mozart piano concerto, playing the piano part
himself. He kindly invited me to join him and his musician
friends after the concert at the home of a well-to-do patron,
which I happily did. That same evening we got the idea of having
Neil and the St. Petersburg musicians give a chamber concert at
the residence of the American Consul General, also a former
palace, which I was able to arrange.

These were the musicians who recognized me in the
audience the night the American professor was my guest. I was
the American big shot who performed a service that, in normal
times, would have been performed by an ordinary mailman.

Ren Renshaw. November 7, 2006