The Australian Tour of Ensemble XXI Moscow, October 1997            

Ensemble XXI Moscow set off for its first tour outside of Europe in late August. The orchestra had just finished a busy schedule of concerts in Moscow with its first “Symphonies in Moscow Courtyards” Festival.

The rehearsal over, everyone had lunch, packed all the music and checked that all the instruments were securely in their cases. Then the mini buses, sent by one of the orchestra’s sponsors, were loaded with people, bags and instruments. A final photo call with many of the parents who all congregated to wave off the orchestra and it was off to Sheremetyevo International airport.

For once passport control was fairly smooth. Customs officers, as usual, demanded the obligatory passports for the instruments. In Russia, the old Soviet rule remains. The Russian musicians’ instruments (and the bows in the case of string instruments) require passports with front on and profile photos. Getting these passports as well as their photos requires wrestling with bureaucrats at the Ministry of Culture for months before a tour.  

Finally, on board the comfortable Vietnam airlines plane, pampered by the polite crew, it was hard to believe we were still only on the tarmac at a Moscow airport. As we took off the excitement mounted. Our Vietnamese musicians were relaxed and happy as they headed for home. Our leader of second violins, had not been home for years. Many Vietnamese musicians come to study in Russia, the links still remaining from the old socialist days. As a result, Vietnam has one of the strongest string traditions in the world.  

The Captain of the plane turned out to be an Australian. When he heard that he had Ensemble XXI Moscow on board on its way to the Sydney Opera House, he invited everyone up (not together!) to the cockpit. This was greatly appreciated. A sighting of Mount Ararat was breathtaking as it rose out of the clouds. Only Noah's Ark was missing. In Four and a half hours we were in Dubai for a quick stop over. Then it was 6 more hours through the night to Saigon. Arrival in the early morning in Saigon is always exciting. The airport is not far from the centre of the city. As one looks out of the plane windows, there are thousands of bikes and mopeds whizzing by, although it is only 5 in the morning. The warm weather immediately hit us as we disembarked. Passports were handed over as we were allowed to go into the city to spend the day in transit. Our flight to Sydney was in the evening. A Vietnam airlines guide showed the orchestra around Saigon. Temples and other places of interest were visited before an excellent lunch in a restaurant. Then it was off to one of our Vietnamese member’s home. Extraordinarily and with typical Vietnamese hospitality they had kindly put their house at the disposal of the orchestra so that everyone could have a sleep. That was everyone except the Vietnamese musician who stayed up and chatted with all the family in the kitchen. In the middle of the afternoon a spectacular monsoon occurred  creating a dramatic atmosphere and beautiful perfumes from the trees around the house.            

After showers it was off again to the airport and soon everyone was on board the flight to Sydney. Once again the captain was an Australian and there were more visits to the cockpit. Concertmaster Pia sat up in the cockpit for the touchdown in Melbourne. We arrived in Sydney a couple of hours later on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning. The bus driver took us straight to The Rocks (the oldest part of Sydney) and under the harbour bridge for the first stunning view of the Sydney Opera House. Everyone clambered out for the photo session and then it was off to the hotel.            Ensemble XXI in Sydney 1997

Check in at the Regent Hotel, a major sponsor of our tour, was brief and efficiently organised by the staff. The rooms, with their breathtaking views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House are wonderfully comfortable. Brunch was followed by a walk to the Opera House and then a long sleep. The next day was free as everyone practiced individually and got over their jet lag. Tuesday rehearsals commenced in the Regent Hotel where a large room was kindly put aside for us to use as rehearsal space.  

In the evening we played for the “Opera Australia” Awards in the Regent Hotel. Our soloist, Coloratura Soprano Ludmilla Shilova sang Handel’s “Cleopatra’s aria” as well as a Boïeldieu's "Bolero". Ensemble XXI Moscow played a concerto of Vivaldi. The performance was very well received and it was an honour to share the evening with the young soloists of the Australian Opera. The orchestra was wined and dined by the Chefs of the hotel. A command performance took place in honour of the Chefs in the Regent Hotel’s kitchen with a lively rendition of Monty Czardas!            

Come Wednesday and the rehearsals became intense as everyone prepared for Ensemble XXI Moscow’s Australian debut the following night at the Sydney Opera House . An early night was had by all before the big day. On Thursday the orchestra arrived at the Opera House for rehearsal. It was wonderful to finally be on the stage and to experience the acoustics.            

That night everyone waited expectantly for the stage manager to give the signal for the beginning of our performance. Many of the great Ensemble XXI in front of Sydney Opera House European Halls could learn a lesson from the staff of the Opera House. The efficiency as well as the high quality of professionalism and courtesy were outstanding. The concert opened with Vivaldi’s concerto in g before continuing with the Handel "Cleopatra's" aria sung by Shilova. Shilova had been chosen by Richard Bonynge for our recording of Haydn's Orpheo and Euridice and had been greatly encouraged by Dame Joan Sutherland on her visit to Russia for the performances. For Shilova this was also a thrilling moment to sing on a stage where so many of Dame Joan Sutherland's historic performances took place. This was followed by Stravinsky’s Basle Concerto Shilova then sang the Boiëldieu Bolero before the first half ended with Verdi’s String Quartet.

 The audience was very warm and responded well to the programme. Backstage staff remarked that the audience did not cough as much as usual and that there were a lot of young people. This wonderful atmosphere continued during the second half of the concert when Shilova sang Elektra’s final aria from  Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Euridice’s “Death aria” from Haydn’s “Orpheo and Euridice”. The concert ended with Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. Soloist Tapio Tiitu from Finland was the soloist. The organ, a difficult, if impressive, instrument was tamed by the Finn and the end brought a roar of approval from the audience. The orchestra relaxed finally and played encores such as Shedrin’s Balalaika. It had been a successful debut and there was Champagne all around in the crush bar back stage for the orchestra, friends and family members of Conductor Lygia O’Riordan who had flown in for the concert.           

The following day Pia and the Ensemble headed off to see the Taronga Zoo and the Aquarium. Awed faces at the first shark sighting soon turned to delight at the sight of the koalas at the Zoo.

The next concert was in Canberra and took place at the National University before the orchestra continued on to Cooma. This concert was in memory of the victims of the Landslide disaster at Thredboe in the snowy mountains. There the orchestra was very touched by the hospitality and by the way in which the whole town made this event possible. An atmospheric and picturesque town, the stay was all the more pleasant by being  resident at the 19th Century "Royal Cooma Hotel". Stafford Harris “Staf” the Manager was the ultimate host. With wine tasting, vases for flowers, the retelling of local history, “Staf” was the perfect gentleman. One of the cellists hit the jackpot in the bar with a poker machine. “Gee whizz mate,  the Russians ARE here!” cried a local. The whole orchestra was sad to say goodbye the next day. On the final day a school concert was held. The students were able to try their hand at conducting and it was good to see that even the local snow boarding champion tried his hand!                 

In the afternoon Terry Davies and a colleague from the Merimbula 2000 committee turned up to drive us to our next destination. This was the most wonderful experience. We climbed up Brown Mountain until we reached the stunning viewing spot, named after the man who used to make the first bus run on old dusty tracks between Cooma and the coast.           

No one was prepared for what awaited Ensemble XXI Moscow in Merimbula Pia feeding the kangoroos in Merimbula itself. We  were met  at the ocean’s edge by Gary and Narelle Hetherington. They are the owners of one of the world’s most beautiful beach spots. “The Hub“ on Pambula beach, a collection of wonderful cabins and houses on the edge of the sea with 40 kilometres of beach stretching out before one’s eyes. It was love at first sight. Dozens of kangaroos was grazing outside the cabin doors. The orchestra could hardly believe that this was where it was going to be in residence for over a week. Gary and Narelle Hetherington proved to be thoughtful hosts. Everything had been thought of including a party on one of the nights off with a typical Australian barbecue and great selection of Australian wine. Particularly touching, however, was the way in which Gary had done his research on the orchestra, visited this web site and worried about the economic problems in Russia. He and Narelle said that their contribution to the orchestra was to sponsor Ensemble XXI Moscow's stay in Merimbula. This was worth its weight in gold.           

Ensemble XXI Moscow visited the Abiriginal CetreA wonderful picnic took place one day overlooking the ocean, a visit to an aboriginal settlement another day with more freshly caught abalone than one could eat in a lifetime! Then came visits to a winery, a farm and the famous Bega Dairy. Finally the evening of our Merimbula concert came. The audience put most audiences to shame. They came in great style sporting black tie and were entertained to a Champagne reception at the beginning of the concert.           

The programme was not an easy one with Stravinsky and Prokofiev being played. The audience's reaction proved yet again that it is false to expect that people out of the cities want to hear only Vivaldi’s 4 seasons and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik". This has been Ensemble XXI Moscow’s experience throughout Western Europe and Russia. The audiences outside the cities are always more adventurous.            

The audience responded with enthusiasm and warmth to the concert. It was a wonderful evening. After the performance there was supper with Champagne for the orchestra. The next concert took place in Bega, This was also a memorable evening with another appreciative audience. Then it was an engagement for the NSW Main Streets and Small Towns Conference. This was a particularly Ensemble XXI on bikes in Australia special occasion as it was an important night for Merimbula. Merimbula had fought hard to host this conference. Next day Merimbula was given its due when the papers heralded its efforts with the headline “Merimbula wows NSW”. Well Merimbula certainly wowed Ensemble XXI Moscow. Merimbula will always hold a special place in Ensemble XXI Moscow's hearts.

Saying goodbye to Terry Davies who drove through the night to Sydney airport with the orchestra was terribly hard. It was a solemn Ensemble XXI Moscow, which went through the passport control on the homeward journey. It was only made bearable by the thought that we would be back again before long.