Russian Tour with Iosif Purits and Cecilia Bignall

January 25, 2019

In November our accordion-cello-guitar trio embarked on a 22 concert tour across Russia, stretching from Smolensk on the western border to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the far east. We visited small towns, big cities, and pretty much everything in between. Although I am of Russian background, due to a complication with my passport this was my first trip since I was 16.

The tour was much more significant than I had imagined. Both in terms of scale and the impact on me personally. The first leg started from Novosibirsk, reaching Chita as our eastern most point and eventually returning to Moscow, by rail. A few memories stand out particularly clearly.

Our arrival in snow covered Siberia from autumnal Moscow. It was a bright sunny day, the sun reflecting off of frozen trees and white fields, horses pulling sleighs, and Russian villagers in fur hats on their way to school and to work. Another was our longest train journey (forty hours) from Krasnoyarsk to Chita on an outdated Soviet train. We shared the carriage with a load of new military recruits gathered from across the country for their compulsory year of military service. Initially standoffish, we all mellowed once we discovered they were in fact very friendly and they discovered we were musicians. Our groups passed the hours playing cards ending with an impromptu performance in the carriage of our concert repertoire, as well as some Russian songs the boys knew from home. It was amazing to see the whole carriage gathered together to listen. It reminded me of the power music has to communicate a common human story across the most diverse of cultural barriers, and unite a group of total strangers. 

Our tour largely consisted of performances in Philharmonies (chamber music halls) and music schools, a leftover of the Soviet system. The central role that the schools play in the culture of the city was striking. In several towns such as Nizhnya Tura and Mezhdurechinsk with general population around 27,000, the music schools boasted numbers of around 900 students! The buildings stood centrally in a place of pride in the cities, often grander than even the Town Hall. The hunger for music from the students was amazing and such a source of inspiration for me personally.