|White Nights Bright Days; The Musical Olympus Festival
As summer fades into fall in Southampton, the legendary White Nights Season of Russia turns midnight blue. The international jet set met up in St. Petersburg for the 307th birthday of this beautiful city and a series of black tie balls and a classical music festival.
The Musical Olympus Festival was founded 15 years ago by noted pianist Irina Nikitina, to showcase prizewinning young musicians from around the world. The festival held annually in St. Petersburg, filled the unique “White Night” season with European royalty, high society, art, haute couture style and inspiring music for 11 days and bright nights.
The Musical Olympus Festival’s honorary committee is a virtual Who’s Who of virtuosos including Plácido Domingo, Valery Gergiev, Mariss Jansons and Yo-Yo Ma. The festival is funded by the Musical Olympus Foundation and has the auspices of the World Federation of International Music Competitions and the Ministry for Culture of Russia. Since its inception in 1996, the foundation has presented more than 300 musicians from more trhan 35 countries throughout the world. Among this year’s sponsors were Vontobel, the Swiss Investment Bank and BMW.
More than 3,000 people attended the six concerts, which were held at the premier concert halls of the city including, the St. Petersburg Grand Philharmonic Hall. The highly anticipated opening night featured The Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Vivat, Olympus,” an overture by Andrey Petrov conducted by Joshua Tan at the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall.
The piece was composed by Petrov to commemorate the first Musical Olympus. The audience gave a standing ovation to violinists Ray Chen of Australia and Hyeyoon Park of Korea, the Slovenian Percussion Duo and conductor Kazuki Yamada of Japan.
Ultimately Russian pianist Ilya Maximov’s brilliant performance of the 3rd Concerto by Prokofiev – seven pieces – earned him the Audience Choice Award. Maximov shared the St. Petersburg State Academic Cappella stage with last year’s winner Ayyub Guliyev. The charismatic Hungarian soprano Polina Pasztirczak sang the aria of Mimi from “La Boheme” and Aria of Micaela from “Carmen” at the end of the concert.
Maximov received his prize at the end of the festival, which was a hinged triptych icon in the form of an Easter egg created by master jeweler Vladimir Mikhailov.
|The social climax of the festival was “The Illusion Ball,” held in the historical building of Synod (the library of former President Boris Yeltsin). Guests entered the champagne reception through an outdoor garden, which had an “Alice in Wonderland” theme complete with oversized, Disney-esque rabbits, teacups, the Mad Hatter and of course, Alice.
After what seemed like endless tins of Beluga caviar (thank goodness I’d brought my own pearl spoon) and magnums of vintage Louis Roederer Cristal champagne, the cognoscenti were whisked down “the rabbit hole” to an underground vault filled with thousands of rare first editions, important historical letters, treaties and political documents.
|Chanda Avininder Singh, Trustee of Kapur Surya Foundation, daughter of the indian philosopher Jagdish Chandra Kapur and Ranjana Das.|
|Through a curtain of “fire,” created with light, we arrived at a round gallery, which held the exhibit “Master and Margarita.” The show, presented by photographer Jean-Daniel Lorieux, was named for Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel of the same name and featured the breathtaking French actress Isabelle Adjani in the role of Marguerite.
After viewing the exhibition we took a glass elevator upstairs to a grand and gilded ballroom. We were greeted by 30 pairs of young, attractive white tied ballroom dancers who performed 18th century dances and then circulated amid the tables inviting the guests to dance with them. This proved to be great fun and got everyone onto the floor; if you didn’t know the steps they taught them to you.
|Vladmir Yakunin, the President of JSC Russian Railways, with Irina Nikitina, the festival founder.||Irina Nikitina leads the way through the dancers.|
|An unforgettable gourmet dinner by Grand Hotel Europe chef Jaako Nuutila cleverly continued the Illusion theme with a “soup” that was actually aspic and had to be eaten with a fork, an “egg with red caviar” that was really carved sherbet topped with tiny red watermelon balls and swordfish prepared on a bone to impersonate lamb chops. The meal was the trip’s culinary pièce de résistance.
In addition to musical interludes by the stars of the festival, there was a haute couture fashion show by the “ripe to be discovered” Monica Moss who works in Switzerland. Friends of the Festival modeled her elegant gowns. As the ballroom was magically “set on fire,” trumpeters summoned us to a courtyard that had been lavishly tented and turned into a nightclub. Wow.
|The next morning everyone went for a colossal buffet brunch on the terrace of Belleview Restaurant at the Kempinski Moika 22 Hotel. The glass enclosed roof deck has a beautiful view of the city and is a popular gathering spot for lunch and cocktails.
I had a wonderful lunch here with Dennis Hopper once, when he showed his paintings at the Hermitage. He was staying at the hotel with his wife and son and told me how much he enjoyed it.
The festival has performed annually at Carnegie Hall since 2007, and has given concerts in Zurich and Berlin. The foundation plans to expand to Singapore and London in the 2010-2011 season.
Many former festival participants have gone on to prominent international careers such as violinists Ilya Gringoltz and Nikolay Znaider, clarinetist Martin Fröst, pianist Eldar Nebolsin, conductors Tugan Sokhiev and Vassily Petrenko, soprano Marina Poplavskaya.
The smart set stayed at St. Petersburg’s best address, the Grand Hotel Europe, which has played an integral role in the culture of St. Petersburg for over 135 years.
The hotel has been a favorite of royalty, heads of state and movie stars alike including Prince Charles, former President Bill Clinton, conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, author Herbert Wells, Kim Cattrall, Demi Moore and Elton John.
|Historically, Pyotr Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon at the Grand and George Bernard Shaw famously dined with Maxim Gorky in the hotel’s dining room. As St. Petersburg is known as “the Venice of the North,” the Grand Hotel Europe imported a 1940’s wooden speedboat named “The Katarina” from Venice. Hotel guests can explore the city’s impressive architecture including the jewel of the horizon – the Hermitage – from the water along the web of canals in the luxurious and fully staffed craft.
Although the White Nights and musical performances of this year’s festival are now a memorable echo, you can plan to attend next year’s celebration now. Visit Musicalolympus.org  and get a head start on a stay at The Grand Hotel Europe (Grandhoteleurope.com ) or Kempiski Hotel Moika 22 (kempinski.com/stpetersburg ) and watch for the festival’s performance at Carnegie Hall in 2011. See you in St. Petersburg in 2011, n’est-ce pas?
— R. Couri Hay