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Performing Arts

On the Volga with the Russian National Orchestra
by Glenn Walters
photo by Roman Goncharov

Alexander Vedernikov

A long and very leisurely sail up the Volga River from Volgograd to Moscow, concerts by what many consider Russia’s finest symphonic ensemble, sight-seeing at cities along the way and the presence on board of a pair of royal personages from the British Isles – those were the highlights of the Russian National Orchestra’s seventh annual Volga cruise, which took place this year over a stretch of 10 days starting in the last days of April.

Home on the cruise for slightly more than 100 musicians and staff of the orchestra and some 60 paying guests was the luxury river boat Akademik Gluzhkov, adorned with banners proclaiming ‘Great Music in the Heart of Russia.’

As it turned out, the Heart of Russia was wet and cold as the Akademik Gluzhkov departed Volgograd on the first leg of its voyage upstream, the captain predicting that the boat might possibly encounter ice flows (though assuring passengers that there was no danger of Titanic-like disaster). But as the cruise progressed upriver, stopping at Saratov, Samara, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Kostroma, Yaroslavl and Uglich, the skies cleared and temperatures eventually rose near mid-summer levels.

At each of the cities from Volgograd to Kostroma, the local audience, together with guests of the cruise, was treated to a con cert by the full complement of the RNO (Russian National Orchestra), in programs that featured classics of the Russian symphonic repertoire and were led by the Bolshoi Theater’s music director and chief conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, who in recent seasons has been a frequent guest on the orchestra’s podium.

An unusual feature of this year’s cruise was the presence on board for three days of a first cousin of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent (accompanied by his glamorous princess wife), whose fondness for things Russian, and particularly its music, has made him a frequent visitor to Russia, as well as a patron of the RNO.

“The Prince has long wanted to go on our cruises,” said Sergei Markov, the orchestra’s president, “and this year he found an important reason for doing so.” The reason in question was to present an enormous bell, forged in Volga-River town of Tutayev and purchased with funds from the Prince’s private foundation, to Kostroma’s Ipatyevsky Monastery, which served as home to his distant forebear, Mikhail Romanov, when the latter was summoned from Moscow in 1613 to become Russia’s tsar.

Russian National Orchestra

Looking for all the world like a twin brother of Tsar Nicholas II, Prince Michael stepped off the boat in Kostroma to be greeted with great pomp and ceremony by a delegation that included the governor of Kostroma Oblast and assorted local dignitaries, a brass band and folk dancers, and the inevitable bread and salt. Presentation of the bell took place a short time later amid colorful pageantry in the Monastery courtyard, presided over by Alexander of Kostroma and Galich, who blessed the bell with splashes of holy water and later gave it its first thunderous ring.

The presence of the Prince and Princess, together with their entourage of friends and retainers, provided both passengers and bystanders with a pleasant and sometimes amusing diversion. But even without the royal couple in tow, the cruise would undoubtedly have proved a memorable experience for all concerned.

In Markov’s view, the RNO’s Volga trips are an ideal way of bringing the orchestra together with its fans and supporters from both at home and abroad.

“We are, after all, the Russian National Orchestra, and we really want Russia to be our principal stage. But traveling around Russia has huge inconveniences when compared with touring abroad. So the cruises give us a way to reach out to the regions and to enjoy comfort along the way. They also give the musicians time to spend time together and, in that way, promote cohesion within the orchestra.”

As for the paying guests, who this year came in large part from America and Japan, Markov pointed out that many of them actually or potentially give financial support to the orchestra. “The cruises bring them much closer to us,” he said, “and provide an excellent opportunity for developing new relationships and new projects.”

Not to be forgotten are the local audiences at stops along the way, who, as Markov puts it, “have the rare chance to hear Russian orchestral playing at its very best – and at very low prices, thanks to our sponsors.” (Somewhat ironically, this year’s main sponsor was the Georgian mineral water firm Borjomi, whose products were banned from the Russian market just as the cruise came to an end).

My own experience on the final leg of this year’s cruise, from Kostroma to Moscow, as well as on the entire journey from Saratov to Nizhny Novgorod in September 2004, could hardly have been more enjoyable. Though the earlier trip took place on a much less elegant boat and included only a small delegation of paying guests, plus a handful of journalists, the same atmosphere and the same pleasures were to be found on both occasions.

Above all else was the opportunity day after day to hear great music superbly played, whether in concert halls along the way or at rehearsals and chamber concerts on board the boat. Added to that was the chance to become acquainted with the top-flight professionals who play the music and gain an insider’s view of what it takes to be a member of a world-class orchestra.

His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent and Bishop Alexander of Kostroma and Galich

Then, of course, there is the co-star of the trip, the mighty Volga River itself, which offers an ever-changing panorama of Russia as few visitors, and by no means every Russian ever see it. Each of the stops along the way has its own distinctive history, architecture and atmosphere, and the guided tours for guests of the cruise more often than not provide a good introduction to all of these. For those who have never visited the great cities that line the Volga, or even those who have, the RNO cruises provide an ideal opportunity to sample their respective delights and to gain a special insight into the life of each by joining together with local concert-goers at the orchestra’s evening performances.

The RNO’s next Volga cruise has already been scheduled for the first two weeks of May 2007 and will take place, according to Markov, on a much larger boat, one completely refurbished and equipped with more spacious cabins than most of those on the Akademik Gluzhkov. In addition, Markov foresees what he terms a more ‘educational’ approach than in the past, with lectures and round-table discussions of both music and other aspects of Russian culture. Conducting duties next year will be divided between the RNO’s renowned musical director, Mikhail Pletnev, and another important conductor whose name has yet to be disclosed.

Further information about the RNO and its plans for next year’s cruise can be found at

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