White Nights in St. Petersburg and Savonlinna Opera Festival
After saying goodbye to Mikkeli my next destination was St. Petersburg, where I caught up with my old teachers Leonid Korchmar and Piotr Gribanov. Maestro Gribanov had asked me to help him with some performances of Swan Lake with the Tchaikovsky Ballet - he needed to take a week off so I promised to conduct five performances at Aleksandrinsky and Hermitage theatres. But first of course I had to learn the piece, so I went to see Gribanov's performances and he gave me all sorts of useful tips. I must say even to start conducting ballet is a big challenge, because you need the right scores, and what you can buy from the music shop is probably totally different from what the company uses. I also took the "original score" out from the library, but had to print dozens of extra pages (thanks, IMSLP) to get all the numbers I needed, and of course everything was in wrong order too. But that was enough to start studying the piece. Before I left St. Petersburg I got the "proper" score that the company uses, and it honestly was one of the worst looking scores I've ever used. It was a totally worn out photocopy to begin with, with lots and lots of cuts, some of the music only in piano score, and at least five different conductors had used it and of course marked it heavily (which is a must when you deal with different dancers and their preferences) with pencil, color, sticky notes and the like. But as I said, it finally was the show I was going to conduct, exactly in the right order from the first note to the last.
Before my Swan Lakes I needed to go back to Finland for a few days, because I did not want to miss a very rare event - Riccardo Muti visiting the Savonlinna Opera Festival with his youth orchestra, "Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini". A friend of mine from Paris had put me in touch with the orchestra earlier, when they needed to figure out where in Finland they could rent double basses for their players, and as the results the orchestra invited me to their opera performances (Falstaff and Macbeth) and the final symphonic concert with maestro Muti. I also got permission to watch Muti's rehearsals, and that was very interesting as always. This youth orchestra had amazing discipline, and Muti had trained them really well - especially I was impressed by their phrasing that had a rare singing quality, much akin the way best Russian orchestras play. The concert program was Coriolan overture, Schubert's Unfinished symphony, and Beethoven's 5th. After the concert, when I told maestro Muti how much I enjoyed his rehearsals, he welcomed me to attend his rehearsals any time I am visiting Chicago!
After the opera festival visit it was back to hard work with Swan Lake. On the day of my first performance I spent about six hours just going through the score over and over again. I was going to conduct the piece directly in front of the audience without any rehearsal, I did not know the orchestra from before, and I did not know the dancers either except what I had seen in Gribanov's performances, so I simply had to get it right from the get-go! The performance itself was the biggest adrenaline rush I've felt in years, and luckily everything went according to the plan. I of course met the dancers at the intermissions and after the final curtain to get feedback about the tempos and their visual cues for certain things, so every performance after the first one went smoother and felt easier. Conducting the Swan Lake for five times was a great experience and I can say I learned from it more than I've learned about conducting in years. Conducting ballet is really a special thing and it should be taught as part of basic conducting studies. Now I feel that the ballet conductors form a kind of secret society that knows the ins and outs of the job and does not easily share it to "outsiders". But one thing I can say with confidence now: It's not a shame to be called a ballet conductor. Ballet is extremely difficult to conduct and poses a whole new set of challenges to the conductor. I have much respect now for this specialty.
I stayed in St. Petersburg a few more days after my last show, to listen to some rehearsals and concerts with Valery Gergiev and to meet some colleagues. I also happened to hear Valery Gergiev and Alexander Toradze working on a recording of the Stravinsky piano concerto. Many times Gergiev seems to be in a rush and leaves things unrehearsed at the dress rehearsal, but this time he was making a recording and was rehearsing the most minute of details very patiently, which was very refreshing to hear.