About half the choir, together with our conductor, Sue, and accompanist, Ian, travelled to Minsk at the invitation of the UK Ambassador, a former member of the choir. We offered four concerts in a range of different venues as well as enjoying a crowded programme of sightseeing. Because Belarus has few amateur choirs of its own and few tourists, we were given an outstanding welcome.
A Minsk Diary (31st May – 4 June 2006)
Wednesday, 31st May
|St Cecilia Chorus|
The St Cecilia Minskers, 30-strong with extras, having successfully got themselves to Gatwick by the stipulated time of 9.00 am, found themselves in ample time for a 3-hr wait before take-off. The Chairman’s injunction to dress appropriately, and ‘not flaunt wealth’ had been interpreted in various ways: Tenors and Basses had unsurprisingly found being discreetly dowdy no problem, though their inconspicuousness was somewhat nullified by Ian and Alan’s wearing of ties, while Sopranos and Altos positively rattled with the clunk of heavy jewellery. Rumour had it that the extended wait for the flight was less an air-line stipulation than a ploy by Sue to claw back extra rehearsal time, especially since she had spent the night at Gatwick and was likely to be fresh as a daisy. Others in the know claimed that she was most definitely ‘not a morning person’ and that we’d be safe till Minsk; Ian was heard to disloyally declare that she was only likely to make her appearance as the plane brakes were coming off. So beneath her outwardly calm exterior, the Chairman’s heart was, she confessed, pounding, until music director, choir and hangers-on [as our itinerant supporters seemed happy to be described] were safely on board flight BRU 852.
Two hours fifty minutes later, as the plane dipped for touch-down in thick mist, visibility nil, choir members were itching to try out their basic Belarusian, since Shaida’s duplicated phrase book and dictionary had been handed out mid-flight to each of us. If those realists among us who turned eagerly to the section headed ‘Stress’ were imagining this might be the answer to faulty intonation and mistimed entries over the next four days, then they were to be disappointed. ‘Stress in Belarusian is irregular and must simply be learned,’ was the discouraging first sentence.
Soon we were at Passport Control, our Treasurer was offering to sing for the blonde Officer scrutinising his passport and visa [strangely, the offer was turned down], Dick was being greeted with flowers by old friends of 14 years previously, and our guides were introducing themselves: Yuliya from the Embassy and Galina from the Travel Agency: they were to prove beacons of hope and encouragement to us throughout our visit, but we didn’t know that yet. Galina swiftly interceded with officialdom to stop our laborious filling-in of currency declaration forms. Only Colleen was held up: by a detailed scrutiny of her Singapore passport. ‘There’s no problem, it’s just like a new toy for them and they all want a look’, declared Galina.
We boarded our coach with Sasha the driver, and made our 45-minute way into Minsk, along straight empty roads, past the Glory Mound – symbol of resistance in the Great Patriotic War [as the Second World War is known], to the suburbs, and then via the State Library [a monument to the President, we were told], plenty of grim evidence in countless apartment blocks of the three styles of municipal architecture [Stalinist, Kruschevist and Brezhnevist],Victory Square, with its eternal flame monument, Minsk Circus, Gorky Park, the Palace of the Trades Union, the War Museum, the Palace of the Republic, and eventually, after a real rush-hour traffic jam in streets awash with water [Don’t worry, there are no traffic jams in Minsk, Yuliya had told us] we alighted at the Hotel Planeta. This was seriously big, with long corridors, beady-eyed concierge-type ladies on each floor and businessmen of various nationalities seeking solace in the lap-dancing club and casino part of the premises. After a supper of doubtful quality [things could only get better, gastronomically-speaking, and they did], we had a short informal rehearsal – muddled-up and at our tables – His Excellency the British Ambassador, aka Brian, made an appearance to welcome us – and then it was bed or the bar.
Thursday, 1st June
Yuliya got us organised at the civilised hour of 10 am for a tour of the city sights, with Galina on board too, dismissing queries about dressing for the concert later in the day with the first of her sallies of wit: You are professionals, you can change quickly. As we coached off down the boulevards more bon mots followed: The main thing in this country is alcoholism…This is the cleanest city in the old Soviet Union [it looked it]. First stop was the holocaust memorial at the ‘Yama’ pit, Minsk’s equivalent to Kiev’s Babi Yar. Here 5,000 of ‘the Righteous’, Jewish men, women and children, had been shot and buried. Now the pit shape remains, all the more poignant for being surrounded by apartment blocks and main roads, and a staircase leading down into it is flanked by a stylised sculpture of hand-in-hand victims. A sobering and moving place, and an indication that the events of 60 years ago are very present today.
Next, at the C.18 Mary Magdalene Church, richly gold and white inside, we found an Orthodox Ascension Day service in full swing, with a sonorous, invisible choir, tiny head-scarved girls, ageing ladies in black and a packed nave, with standing room only. A stop for souvenir shopping, lunch at a deserted casino [slight improvement, but everything tepid], and then hearts started beating faster, for it was time for the Philharmonic Hall: an imposing, spacious, modern Greek-temple looking building, whose Artists’ Entrance in the rear had turnstiles, no less. Up flights of stairs and along long corridors we went, clutching our cases, to the 200-seater Philharmonic ‘small hall’, with its white pillars and armchair-style seats. A grand piano on the raised platform was waiting for Ian, though a stool might have been useful, as were bright lights were in place to dazzle the sopranos as they angled themselves to view Sue’s beat, no platform chairs, and a TV crew who in the interests of realism seemed determined to secure close-up, action film of the straining larynxes and flared nostrils of the Mozart semi-chorus as they settled down to a really serious work-out. This was our first encounter of several with TV, radio and newspapers.
Later that afternoon and on subsequent days Sue and Ian were to be interviewed. Ian’s questions tended towards the bland - Why did you decide to accompany this choir? Answer: Because I was asked to -but Sue’s required a touch of tactful diplomacy - When Mr Brian Bennett sang with your choir, how good a singer was he? Urgent consultations between announcer, translator and Sue kept interrupting the rehearsal, but it became clear to us that this was a grateful acoustic in which to sing [you could actually hear all the other parts], we were finding our form, and were going to have a full house [What’s that? newer members of the choir whose experience was limited to Christ Church, Sutton, were heard to ask]. By 5.30 [for a 6 o’clock start] we were waiting anxiously in our unisex dressing room, Dick organising our entrances and exits, with Yuliya gamely volunteering to guard the unlockable door so our valuables would be safe. A six o’clock start? Well, not exactly. Someone had spotted that crates of vodka were arriving and bottles were being opened - a bait from the Ambassador to the audience so they would at least wait till the interval before leaving? Only ten minutes late, we filed on stage to a continuous round of applause.
A speech of welcome from the announcer, then from Brian himself, and our most substantial programme of the trip got underway: Gibbons’ O Clap Your Hands as a rousing opener, the quiet serenity of Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, more Tudors, Brian’s Desert Island request, Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Elgar’s Ave Verum. Each item was received in rapt silence and the warm applause when the interval came was reinforced by the first of the evening’s bouquets [and this was only the interval, mind], for Sue from Brian [proving to be not the ambassadorial coup d’etat Sue had darkly warned us to prepare for], and a first-half encore [a new experience for most of us], Over the Rainbow. Off went the audience to their ambassadorial whisky or vodka, off we went for our swigs from water bottles.
The second half consisted of the whole of Mozart’s Missa Brevis K275 [in subsequent programmes pressure of time meant a selection of movements from it] and as finale Parry’s I was Glad, which those of us who had also been to Prague now considered our personal calling card. The response from the audience was even warmer: a slow rhythmic hand clap, a speech of congratulatory thanks from Tatiana, the conductor of the Academy of Sciences choir, more bouquets for Sue and Ian, sprigs of lilac for each choir member and more encores: Deep Purple and Faure. The warm glow feeling of a job well done was reinforced half an hour later when, having been dropped off at the Embassy for a special Reception, we found waiting for us the wherewithal to work up a different sort of inner glow - in the form of serried ranks of vodka glasses and a literally endless supply of substantial nibbles.
Also waiting were the members of Brian’s own choir, the Academy of Sciences, who sang for us Belarusian folk-songs and chants with that deep resonant tone we associate with Eastern Europe; then Brian sang a solo[his surprise at last unveiled] accompanied in the choruses by his choir; then Ian accompanied them, joined at the keyboard by yet another dashing Tatiana, from the Opera; then they presented us with choir mugs [why haven’t we thought of that?]; then we presented them with copies of European Sacred Music and Tudor Anthems; then we joined them for The Green Leaves of Summer; then they joined us for Over the Rainbow; then anyone who felt like it had a solo turn. Well might Brian’s charming but avowedly Philistine Number 2 comment, with a wry smile: I’ve had enough culture for a whole year! All in all, an absolutely delightful evening of bridge-building, at which we felt we’d made very good friends.
Friday, 2nd June
Day 2 began with a welcome bonus: our scheduled morning rehearsal had been cancelled by Sue, an indication that all had indeed gone well in the Philharmonic Hall. June’s birthday was marked by a card and chorus of Happy Birthday as we set off for the first of our two concert venues: the House of Mercy on the outskirts of the city. This is a spiritual and physical rehabilitation centre, founded in the aftermath of Chernobyl as a home-grown Belarusian project, where people of all ages, religions and nationalities can be helped to achieve harmony, and presided over by one of Brian’s great friends, Father Fyodor. First impressions were of sparkling newness, not only in the church, dedicated to St Sophia, and gleaming in white and gold, but also in the lavishly equipped classrooms we were able to see, during our ‘pilgrimage’ [as Sister Ludmila our guide suggested we think of it] around the site. In one of them six self-possessed eight-year olds were waiting in best bib and tucker to answer our questions, sing us songs, and look generally enchanting.
By now we had begun to realise, too late, the elastic nature of the length of all Belarusian guided tours: we had long ago mislaid Sue [or should that be the other way round?], the concert hour was approaching, and we had had no opportunity to rehearse, or even briefly test the acoustics of the low-ceilinged small hall into which we filed, or for Ian to fine-tune his Liberace impression at a white grand piano. At least none of the notes stuck.
Everybody put a brave face on it, and after another of Brian’s introductions, we did our best. By now, fortunately, some of us had literally memorised the music, so that at least two of the Altos who had left their glasses behind in the changing room and for whom notes on a page had become vague splodges were able to watch the conductor with unremitting attention throughout the programme. Our lunch-time audience of adults, children, nurses, patients – some on trolleys – gave us another heartening reception, despite some intonation problems that we were aware had beset us. There were roses for Sue, a speech of welcome from Father Fyodor, a benignly bearded presence with a twinkle in his eye and the kind of faith that can move mountains, another speech from Brian, an exchange of presents, and finally Lunch: beautifully cooked on the premises, with local produce, salmon roulades, chilled beetroot soup with egg, savoury potato pancakes filled with mince and garnished with sour cream, and little pastries filled with fruit.
The charismatic Father Fyodor responded to Brian’s thanks by producing two tumblers of vodka and inviting him to down his in one [we found out later that his own was cunningly filled with water as he was about to take a wedding service]; his hospitable reaction to our thanks involved him clicking his fingers in the direction of the kitchens, whereupon we were all served the best, the whitest kind of vodka. A look of alarm was seen to flit across Sue’s face at the thought of the effect raw spirit might have on the unpractised larynxes of the sopranos at the Red Church, our next concert, only three hours’ distant.
A thoroughly Catholic establishment it turned out to be, humming with activity, and only red in view of the colour of the bricks it was built of. Inside was grandly baroque, decorated with white banners looped in great sweeps from the edges of the central dome, but it transpired that the elderly Catholic bishop taking the service that was underway when we arrived was on hunger strike in protest against the Da Vinci Code film, so no wonder proceedings were being abnormally prolonged. Nobody seemed to know, not even Yuliya, who by now we regarded as Mastermind of Minsk, how long we would have to wait before we could rehearse. Nobody even seemed to be expecting us. We slunk down to the bowels of the church to a sound-proof crypt where we were put through our paces by Sue, who was out to improve on the lunchtime slip-ups.
Fifteen minutes before the official start the service may indeed have come to an end, but the place was positively humming: with Christening parties, congregation still at prayer, in the nave as well as the side aisles, and arriving audience. A midget single keyboard organ with middle C missing was all that was available to Ian on the side next to the sopranos in the Tudor Anthems, and an out of tune honky-tonk upright on the opposite alto side, which was to prove so distant as to be inaudible to the sopranos when Ian used it for the Mozart.
One preliminary hum of the opening bars of the Byrd was all that we had time for before off we went, so we could be clapped on, our hearts in our mouths, for a second successive concert for which we had had no rehearsal! Not surprisingly Sue seemed to have acquired a distinctly Churchillian set to her jaw and a steely-eyed expression that can best be described as ‘spirit-of-the-Blitz’. Well, we made it. Just. The audience who at a rough count numbered a couple of hundred responded with great enthusiasm, which was further whipped up by the beaming priest in charge, who genially insisted that Brian join the tenor ranks for a reprise of what else but Faure, after Over the Rainbow [a first not only for the Red Church, we guessed].
Once again bouquets and speeches were delivered. On this occasion many of the audience, including Tatiana and some of our Academy choir friends, together with Minsk music students eager to exchange addresses and information, stayed behind to chat. Gricey’s Groupies, as the more envious of us began to think of them, formed a particularly thick cluster around our concertmeister, organista and fortepianist, as Ian had been variously described by advance publicity. There was yet another radio interview for Sue to give – and then it was off for dinner to a typical Minsk restaurant with floor show, where the food was delicious [and hot when it needed to be]. Your Treasurer and Deputy Chairman, selected for their evident physical co-ordination and svelte physique, suffered the ritual humiliation of being dragged onto the dance floor by the scantily-clad floozies of the resident floor show to do a can-can, after which a cooling 30 minute walk to the hotel in the mild night air gave us the chance to see Minsk glamorously illuminated.
Saturday, 3rd June
We set off at 9.00 am for Polotsk, 250 kms to the North of Minsk, for our fourth and final concert. A long journey was ahead of us, with accompanying hazards about which we as yet knew nothing , but a visit to the oldest and holiest pilgrimage site in the country was in prospect, added to which Yuliya promised us a coffee stop en route ‘as soon as the coach’s engine has warmed up’. Though ‘Belarusian Switzerland’ which we passed through consisted of a few gently undulating slopes of firs and meadows, with one ski run and a solitary cow, as we drew further from Minsk into deeper countryside the pattern of woods and villages gave us a chance to see dachas, horse-drawn ploughs, tiny wooden churches, and hand milking.
As the morning wore on however, the brows of Conductor and Chairman could be seen to furrow: Yuliya’s 10 minute coffee stop in the woods turned out to take a good half an hour, road works slowed our progress down for mile after mile, and when we finally arrived, 45 minutes behind schedule, in Polotsk [population 83,000, Belarusian as late as 1922] a classic loo saga began to unfold. Don’t comment to the guide on the state of the toilets, Yuliya advised us as the coach approached the river bank below the cathedral, and a moment later we could see why. An extraordinary wooden construction, a cross between the witch’s gingerbread house and a garden shed that might have suited a gnome or hobbit, was set back from the coach’s turning point: a unisex loo that had no need of signs to advertise its purpose, as we realised when we left the coach and had to clutch our noses. Some hardy individuals formed a typically British queue for it; other timorous souls decided to brave the minute recesses of the coach’s on-board facilities, even though the inside handle had fallen off. And all this was taking time.
|In concert at the Philharmonic Hall|
A guided tour of the holy shrine of St. Euphronia lasting Heaven knows how long was scheduled for us before lunch, a booked, three-course, sit-down affair, courtesy of the ambassador. You didn’t have to be a lip-reader to work out what the worried group around Sue were being told: this time round no concert would take place without adequate prior rehearsal. What’s been decided? I asked Shaida. Oh, we’ve decided on Plan 53a, she replied, with a frantic bright, tight-lipped smile. In the event, Plan 53a turned out to be a whistle-stop tour of the sacred convent site: the bemused guide was constantly reminded of the need for speed and our party was made exempt from the regulation that women must wear head scarves and skirts. The interior of the frescoed shrine, where the miracle-working saint lies shrouded in a niche, guarded by ferocious nuns, was charged with atmosphere. But it was all we had time for.
On our breathless way out of the precinct, with no time for the second church, we came upon Ian, looking for once oddly ruffled. Bringing up the rear in contemplative mode he had just stepped through the outermost gateway when he had had his pipe knocked out of his mouth by an unseen assailant, with a blow so hard that he thought he was being mugged. An irate local was in fact remonstrating with him for lighting up within the holy precinct, even though the nearest religious building was a good seventy yards away and he was outside a souvenir shop. Although Shaida’s phrase book was unequal to this particular situation, some sort of amicable communication was established in spite of the language barrier, and once outside the gate Ian had his pipe restored and his smiling assailant shook his hand.
So far so good: we sat down to another lunch of local delicacies at 2 o’clock, and were entering St. Sophia’s Cathedral an hour later, a deconsecrated, sumptuously baroque building now used solely for concerts. There was a magnificent Czech organ, up in a high gallery at the West end, of which Ian was given a guided tour by the resident organist. Moreover, the bench seats in the nave had cunning backs which could be angled in different directions according to whether the audience needed to face the organ or the stage at the East end. Accordingly Sue decided we would sing up in the organ loft grouped to one side of the organ, and once we had hauled ourselves up a vertiginous, no hand-rail spiral staircase [not all of us are as nimble as Muriel and Barbara] we had ample time to rehearse everything. It was a wonderfully resonant acoustic in which many of the items took wing, and a real treat to sing in, despite our not being able to see the audience. When the time came for the concert there was a moment of delightful misunderstanding when the local lady interpreter took the microphone to announce our opening number, quite correctly, as O Clap Your Hands – which the audience, bless them, took literally, and actually did!
|Concert at the Philharmonic Hall|
Sue, looking genuinely cheerful, and doubtless mindful of the imminence of the World Cup, gave her final whispered pep talk: Sing for England! And that’s what we did. Ian at last got the chance to play one of his scheduled solos, and I was Glad really erupted into those baroque vaults which could surely never have heard it before. We were, Brian had stressed in his introduction, the first amateur choir ever to sing there, and we felt we’d done ourselves justice. By now we were getting used to the Belarusian way of saying it with flowers, but it was still touching to be given narcissi, and still more so to be serenaded, from the audience, by a girls’ choir in traditional costume who we were photographed with when the proceedings drew to a close. Off into the evening sunshine we drove, with substantial sandwiches to sustain us at a mosquito-ridden picnic, and beers in the bar at the end of a long day for those who felt a little thirsty, which was most of us.
Sunday, 4th June
All that remained next morning was to bid affectionate farewell to Brian outside the hotel, to make speeches of thanks and a presentation to the wonderful Yuliya [who was sufficiently unscarred by her steep learning-curve experience to offer her services to Sue as her Tour Manager for any further concert tours of Belarus]. Only the leather-jacketed KGB man watching from a discreet distance who had followed us for four days must have been glad to see the back of us. As our plane lifted off Belarusian soil to the accompaniment of excited squeals from the Chernobyl children sharing our flight, there was plenty to reflect on, and not only whether the Marjory Hall fund should invest in a Porta-Loo, to be carried by Dorothy on future expeditions in addition to the conductor’s music-stand. Shaida’s brilliant organisation, Kevin’s canny manipulation of the purse-strings [even a refund on our return!], Ian’s extraordinary mastery of any keyboard and not least Sue’s expertise and determination to impose on us her own high standards had given us an experience to remember with satisfaction and gratitude.