As with everything during this summer and autumn, art events that were quite normal for previous seasons are now perceived with exhilaration and joy mixed with covert anxiety, as uncertainty of the future still lingers on. One walks inside the music halls once taken for granted with the wish to stay, touch the walls, prolong the time of being there. The feeling of relaxed normality has not yet settled in. We are overjoyed to listen to music, compare local concert halls in different countries online, there is some sort of inner competition in terms of where to see shows and listen to music. It’s unclear if the feeling of normality when going to music concerts will ever settle in. We may even need a comparative guide soon on different approaches to music making and concert organisation around the world, as management of the situation differed significantly from country to country. In Russia, despite the number of virus cases still being rather high (and the prospect of the second wave, unfortunately, quite realistic), theatres and concert halls (as well as operas) have reopened. And so we get a glimpse of music making, we see those schedules of shows ahead and we wait… in hope.

Photo from the opening concert. @Stanislav Levshin

St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall launched its 100th season on 25th September 2020. Usually the opening concert takes place on Dmitry Shostakovich’s birthday, and this year was not an exception. Before the concert a press-conference took place, as obviously many questions needed to be answered during this time like no other. The Director of St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall Ilya Cherkassov, as well as Vice-Director Evgeny Petrovsky took part in the conference together with the conductor and soloist for the opening concert: Maestro Nikolai Alekseev and pianist Nikolai Lugansky. According to Petrovsky, the Philharmonic had to follow ‘plan B’ in its season planning: it will now focus mainly on performers with Russian citizenship or Russian connections, although there is still hope that it will be possible to invite international performers for the Festival ‘Square of the Arts’ in December 2020.

The announced season seems packed with internationally famous names of conductors and performers: Yuri Temirkanov, Vladimir Jurowski, Mikhail Pletnev, Mikhail Tatarnikov, Grigory Sokolov, Nikolai Lugansky, Yefim Bronfman, Daniil Trifonov, Boris Berezovsky, Maxim Vengerov are scheduled to appear here, as well as such renowned music ensembles as MusicAeterna (St Petersburg), Russian National Orchestra (Moscow), Montreal Symphony Orchestra (with Kent Nagano) and Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Interestingly, Nikolai Lugansky shared his difficulties in travelling to concerts in Europe: they have to be organised via London, as this is the only existing route, and his Schengen work visa is enough to gain access to European countries. It was slightly unusual to get involved in all those intricacies of concert planning and travel organization usually left to music managers, but it is the sign of our times that reveals human effort behind each musical event previously taken for granted by spectators.

Photo from the opening concert. @Stanislav Levshin

I remember walking inside the Philharmonic Hall after the press-conference – I thought I could begin kissing its stairs. I kept wondering how to stop the moment of ‘things being allowed’, of ‘the present of music still there’ and could not find any solution, apart from trying to stay calm. On the next day the Philharmonic Hall was packed – the seating allowance was 70 percent initially, but remaining places were given to the press and to the invited guests, reaching maximum capacity. After the socially distanced seating at the Mariinsky (one gets used to luxury of spacing rather quickly) that didn’t feel very comfortable, so hopefully some other solutions will be found for the following concerts. The feeling of excitement was in the air – pictures, selfies, applause, talks – the joy of making music traveled from musicians to the audiences. The Hall itself, which is the former St Petersburg Nobility Assembly, with its sumptuous white columns and chandeliers, looked like the guardian of traditions, the soothing evidence that history is still there, the past has not disappeared and continuity of artistry and creation will be maintained.

The works performed on the night were specifically chosen to mark the occasion of the 100th season: Dmitry Shostakovich’s First Symphony had its premiere in this Hall in 1926, while Sergei Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto had its St Petersburg premiere here in 1911, with the composer doubling as a soloist. There could have been no better choice of a performer for this particular concert as it is known for its intense lyricism with outstanding complexity. Nikolai Lugansky, who is unofficially named as ‘the last romantic’ on modern stage, was evidently in his stride: he had been performing in Moscow, St Petersburg (Mariinsky) and even international venues since June. However, the significance of the occasion was not lost on the pianist who had started with non-audience performances in June and for whom it was the first return to St Petersburg Philharmonic since the early 2020.

Photo from the opening concert. @Stanislav Levshin

Boris Asafyev said that the concert expressed ‘the value of life, inescapability of return to spring and joys of being on this earth’. Indeed, among all its virtuoso passages this stream of gratitude to life for still being there and to music for being able to express it, was shared by the performer, orchestra, conductor and audience who gave a standing applause.

The second half of the concert was a variation on the theme of joy turning to playfulness and youthful exuberance of Dmitry Shostakovich. Maestro Nikolai Alekseev and Philharmonia Symphony Orchestra sometimes expressed signs of unevenness in these first moments of playing together, but in a way, the work that was written by a student of St Petersburg Conservatory called for these occasional jumps in orchestral coordination, and they co-existed with intended challenge to academism and tradition that has been intended by the composer. The concert most certainly produced a stir in the hearts and minds of St Petersburg audiences. As autumn takes its reign, classical music will hopefully establish its presence with full confidence.