Well before our trip to St Petersburg (see ‘Family Ties’, ‘joecollier.blog’; 29 April 2018) we had decided that on one of our evenings we would go to a concert. After some negotiation, tickets were booked for a piano recital; my preference was that it should include work by Tchaikovsky.
We soon learned that our concert venue – the city’s modern Mariinsky Concert Hall – had a magnificent interior with acoustics to match. The prospect for our musical evening was becoming increasingly attractive.
Our taxi dropped us early at the theatre and we were greeted by a lobby buzzing with excitement. Our pianist that night was a local prodigy, the 24-year old Alisa Dukhovlinova, and this was to be her first concert in this most prestigious of settings.
We were at the head of the queue when the auditorium’s doors opened. The sight that greeted us as we entered the empty hall was special. All was wood. To the right, as we stared up from the stalls, were narrow rows of steeply-banked seats stretching as far as I could see; to the left a low barrier separated the seats from a broad stage. Above, we were surrounded by other seating areas almost hidden from view. Added to all this were the Hall’s wavy walls, their form highlighted by fine lines of contoured wooden blocks. The French architect and his Japanese acoustics engineer, had done the city proud.
We bought our programme and, helped by an usher, found ourselves in the middle of the second row of the stalls – for us a rare luxury. Sitting on my right was a well dressed woman in her sixties with black hair, wearing a black suit and black shoes, and holding a black bag. She spoke some English and started up a conversation almost immediately – “This evening I am a very proud woman; the pianist is a former pupil of mine. I have known her since she was four and started teaching her when she was five. She is most gifted”. I told Rohan of my neighbour’s comments and we both felt honoured to be by her side. “How very proud you must be,” I said and, in response, her face glowed with contentment. Minutes later our neighbour waved at a couple standing by the stage. “It’s the pianist’s mother and father, we know each other well. I must go and say hello”.
After a few embraces she was back. The lights dimmed, the audience hushed and on to the stage walked our prodigy. Alisa was slight, not to say waif-like, and had a mass of curly hair that went down her back, almost to her waist. She crossed the stage with great purpose, sat at the piano, stared ahead for some seconds, stretched her hands out above the keyboard and then began to play. So precise, so authoritative, so skilled and so rhythmical. Sometimes, when the music demanded particular energy, her hair would fall over the front of her shoulders and hide her face from view – for a moment she would be alone with her piano.
Then a truth dawned – this was not the Tchaikovsky I had expected but Shostakovich, who I can’t normally manage. I have always found his rhythms disjointed and his melodies difficult to follow, and here I was listening to his work a result of a muddle of my own doing. When planning which concert to go to, my dyslexic demon had got the upper hand. Ultimately, however, it did not matter, with Alisa at the keyboard,the music was mesmerising.
At the end of the concert, we congratulated our neighbour and repeated again how very proud she must feel for the way her student performed. Vicariously, we shared that pride. We had been, by a stroke of luck, next to someone very special, and if we knew her name, the picture would be complete. Our enquiry, however, revealed rather more than we had bargained for. Alisa’s various piano teachers were listed in the programme and, when the opportunity arose, Rohan asked our neighbour which of them was her. Her reply changed everything – “I am none of these. I didn’t teach her music, I taught her maths”.
At that moment we woke from the dream we had created and our feeling of privilege from sitting next to the pianist’s teacher, melted away. We felt very disappointed, in fact cheated. However, for seeing the wonders of the Hall, for hearing a virtuoso pianist of the future and for discovering the pleasures of Shostakovich, it was a wonderful evening. Yes, our fantasy was dashed, but our memory of Alisa’s playing has remained unscathed. In retrospect, the ‘confessions’ of Alisa’s math’s teacher have served only to give the occasion unusual piquancy.
We did eventually catch up with Tchaikovsky. The day after the concert we went to Saint Petersburg’s Tikhvin Cemetery where we saw, and photographed, the statue atop his grave.
The illustration is my amateur photo taken of the bust of Tchaikovsky in the Tikhvin cemetery.