Winter in Moscow

November 2006
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St Basil’s Cathedral 39K jpeg
The gaudy domes of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral in winter
Europe map: Moscow 13K jpeg

My first impressions of Russia were probably tainted by my preparatory reading for the trip: Not only the Lonely Planet Moscow guidebook, but also Gorky Park and The Charm School.

It was a cold November afternoon in 2006 that I was met on arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport by Timur Gafitulin, piano technician from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He would be my companion and translator for the next four days. Our car was a brand new black sedan, replete with a black leather-coated and gloved chauffeur who looked as though he may have once worked for the KGB—if he wasn’t still in their employ. We had an hour and half ride in heavy traffic south east to central Moscow, where we were both dropped in front of the Conservatory.

A lengthy stroll through the huge compound of the Conservatory brought us to my accommodation, an apartment on the first floor of a two storey building. The exterior metal door squealed like crazy on its hinges, which I soon confirmed would bring the matronly babushka out of her ground floor apartment every time to check who might be coming or going.

Another key was required for the door at the top of the stairs to the apartment itself, cosily heated to over 25°C. The square entry had two bedrooms, toilet, bathroom, and kitchen/sitting room running off it. The third key was for my bedroom, which had the appearance of a one-time student dormitory with three beds, two bedside tables and a wardrobe fitted in the only possible geometric solution to the space. The supplied pillow looked more like a square Soviet-era sandbag with a black rubber stamp in each corner of its white cotton case—as if that was needed to discourage any souveniring.

Tchaikovsky Conservatory piano workshop 61K jpeg
Piano workshop at the Conservatory

I was more than happy in the expectation that the apartment was for my sole occupancy for the four days. However, later that night after I was tucked in bed, other guests arrived to occupy the remaining bedroom, which was fine by me—except for their constant smoking. I was able to survive by stuffing my spare towel in the crack under my bedroom door, and gaining access to freezing but welcome fresh air by opening the tiny portholes set in my room’s large double-glazed windows.

My friend and colleague Marc Ducornet wanted me to come here to check the Franco-Flemish Double-manual harpsichord which had been used in Paris for a few years before being sent to Moscow. The famous Russian musician Alexei Lubimov was responsible for inviting me to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory and teaming me up with Timur Gafitulin.

The scene of my work was only a 50m stroll from my apartment: The piano workshop under the direction of Alexei Kravtchenko. His staff undertake the most extensive work, including pulling out iron frames to allow clear access to repair and refinish piano soundboards. (Surplus frames of long-forgotten pianos provide decoration on the outside wall.) This rebuilding work appeared to be pretty constant because the piano workshop, like most premises here, was heated to 25°C and less than 30% humidity. It wasn’t only Napoleon or Hitler who came unstuck in the severe Russian winter: This humidity is far too low for musical instruments made largely from wood without shrinkage and splitting.

I spent an enjoyable time working on the Atelier Marc Ducornet harpsichord, assisted by the workshop staff and especially Andrei Andrianov, a tenor so interested in the earlier keyboard instruments that he had decided to become a tuner/technician. I was also able to visit a few of the other early keyboards in the Conservatory and advize Andrei on his upkeep of them. For my project, though, there was the usual time to be spent in minor keyboard and action adjustments necessary for a near-new instrument after delivery, and four strings to be replaced. The main purpose of my visit was to repair the aged spruce bottom, chosen for tonal reasons, which had split in about eight places because of the severe Moscow dryness. I’d brought my new router from Sydney to enlarge the cracks in the front bottom to accept full-depth 12mm spruce fillers—I wanted to ensure a thorough repair because both sides of the front bottom are obviously visible when the keyboards are removed. (When I found the piano workshop lacked proper hearing protection for their staff using machines, I was more than happy to leave my new Australian Standard compliant earmuffs behind.) For the wandering cracks in the back bottom, a piano soundboard shim tool was more effective, gouging the cracks to a v-shape and ready to accept full-length tapered shims which the workshop staff had kindly already prepared from an old piano soundboard.

Concert Hall at Tchaikovsky Conservatory 76K jpeg
The Concert Hall at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory
(the fingers of the statue are a favorite for students to cover with condoms)

The final part of the work was the careful paint matching of the endgrain of the filler strips where they showed on cheek and spine, and everyone judged the repair a great success.

I had a wonderful choice of concerts each evening, and was humbled indeed by the large display case in the main hall of the Conservatory containing scores and mementos of all the great Russian composers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who had studied here. I truly felt I was in one of the great music institutions of the world. Tuesday night I went to a concert where I finally met Alexei Lubimov: He was off to Berlin for concerts the next day, and no doubt ready to enjoy the accommodations provided to traveling virtuosi there.

The Conservatory is only 500m from Red Square, so I was able to wander around the entire imposing perimeter wall of the Kremlin in the snow one morning, past Lenin’s Tomb and St Basil’s Cathedral. The Pushkin Art Museum was a priority on another morning, and I sat in captivation by St Sebastian for a considerable time. I enjoyed a specially-arranged tour of the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture with Timur one afternoon, although the guide provided by the Conservatory was overly-enthusiastic about his trumpet specialty which I only found a little interesting. In terms of keyboards, they have a Shudi and a Iadra virginal, as well as a tiny Neupert harpsichord, Neupert Spinet and Ammer clavichord on show.

November 18, and it was time to return to Australia. A minor bureaucratic problem greeted me when I approached the British Airways desk to check in for London and onwards to Singapore and Perth on QANTAS. Two immigration officials were making preliminary passport checks. The visa which I’d been issued with at the Russian Consulate-General in Sydney noted the dates of my visit sponsored by Tchaikovsky Conservatory to be November 13 to 17, and so it appeared that I was attempting to leave the country without a valid visa. For most countries, this would not be a problem. For Russia, though, it would not do at all, even though I was able to produce the copy of my visa application, clearly showing I applied for the same four-day duration but with entry on November 14 and exit on November 18 to suit my booked flights. An urgent phone call to Timur did not avoid the inevitable: My passport was confiscated, and I had to scrawl a letter to the Russian Consul/Immigration Supervizor at the airport requesting an immediate extension of a day to my visa, and hand over USD25—Russian Rubles not accepted! Half an hour later and I had a very pretty visa taking up another page in my passport, and only then I was allowed to actually check in for my first leg to London…

Cracks in spruce harpsichord bottom 16K jpeg Front and back harpsichord bottoms butting on the bellyrail 13K jpeg
Cracks in the spruce back bottom Front and back bottoms butting at the bellyrail
Router in position for the front bottom crack repair 29K jpeg Front bottom crack ready for shimming 20K jpeg
Router in position for the first crack repair Crack ready for shimming
First front bottom shim glued 15K jpeg Harpsichord front bottom repair complete 19K jpeg
First front bottom shim glued Front bottom repair complete
Harpsichord bottom shims ready for trimming 25K jpeg Harpsichord bottom repair completed 21K jpeg
Shims in the back bottom ready for trimming Bottom finished
Endgrain of a front bottom filler strip 18K jpeg Endgrain of filler strips painted to match the decorated harpsichord cheek 29K jpeg
Endgrain of a front bottom filler strip on the decorated cheek Endgrain of filler strips painted to match

Alexei Kravtchenko, Andrei Andrianov & Carey Beebe at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory Piano Workshop 59K jpeg Timur Gafitulin and Carey Beebe on departure from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory 65K jpeg
Alexei Kravtchenko, Andrei Andrianov & Carey Beebe in the Piano Workshop Timur Gafitulin and Carey Beebe on departure from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory

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