I spent the summer of 1997 on tour with the the American-Russian Youth Orchestra . This was a really excellent ensemble with a noble mission. It originally started in 1987 as the American-Soviet Youth Orchestra as a cultural exchange program. Half of the musicians were from the United States and half of them were from Russia. The same was true for the repertoire (50% from each country), and the tour occurred in both America and in Russia.
1997 was an interesting time to be in Russia. Things were looking good in 1997 for Russia. There was a massive collapse of the Ruble the following year and things took a turn for the worse, but the economy was looking positive in many ways at this point. We spent time in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but also in more remote cities like Kazan, Samara, and Ekaterinburg. We played in an old Soviet factory hall in Togliatti for the workers and spent a week on a boat playing concerts on the Volga river, were followed by thugs and visited Stalin’s bunker in Samara, had a gun pulled on us on a bus in Moscow, and received a surreal Soviet-style propaganda lecture in a Siberian school. It was a really wild trip.
The first half of the tour was in the United States, starting in upstate New York, playing concerts in Nashville, at Tanglewood, and finishing up at Carnegie Hall. When the orchestra met at JFK International Airport after our last U.S. concert to make the trip to St. Petersburg festival officials noticed that we were a few Russians short. Some of the Russians decided that they liked it here in the United States and wanted to stay, so they vanished into the background of New York City. We had to find new musicians once in Russia to finish the tour.
We flew Finn Air from New York City to Helsinki and then caught a puddle jumper to St. Petersburg. It was a rude awakening getting off of our cushy Finn Air jet and winding up in Russian customs. St. Petersburg may be close to Helsinki geographically but it might as well be halfway across the world culturally and economically. Once clearing customs we took a bumpy bus ride to our hotel.
Here are a couple of shots of our St. Petersburg hotel:
Two days before we were relaxing at a posh reception at the Russian Tea Room in downtown Manhattan, and now we were pulling up to the Hotel Russ, which is not exactly the classiest establishment in St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that Russian soldiers hung out in the lobby (along with some seedier folks) at all hours, there was a shooting that first night. Several of the orchestra musicians heard screams and gunshots from another room in the hotel. They got a visit from the Russian police the next day:
“Who did you see? What did you hear?”
We got all sorts of strange phone calls and papers slipped under our door. There was all sorts of business going on in that hotel. It was quite a contrast to our cushy American tour.
We took buses and trains around St. Petersburg and Moscow, but for the next leg of our tour we needed to fly. I wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of flying around the interior of Russia. Our itinerary stated that we would be flying Sarama Airlines from Moscow to Samara for the beginning of our Volga boat tour. Some Russian orchestra members mentioned that airlines like Samara Airlines bought old Aeroflot planes to use for their flights. Aeroflot was at that time considered one of the worst airlines ever, and we would be flying discarded Aeroflot planes!
Our last night in Moscow we were out partying at The Hungry Duck, dancing on the bar and having a good time. The Hungry Duck was a wild bar right near Red Square where the orchestra musicians would hang out after concerts. People would always get up on the bar and dance. I remember hearing with some amusement a few years later about some nasty shenanigans that several Russian politicians had gotten into at that place. You can do a Google search on this place if you want to know more, but I’ll just say that it was a pretty wild place and leave it at that.
The night before our flight to Samara there were some older Russian men who were at The Hungry Duck with us. They seemed to know some of the Russian orchestra musicians. I had no idea who they were, but they were acting crazy and drinking very heavily. The next morning I discovered, to my horror, that these strange guys were (I kid you not) our pilots for the Samara Airlines flight!
The next morning the orchestra got on a bus and headed off for the airport. We rode right out on the tarmac in our bus (which I thought was odd) and watched as Russian baggage handlers loaded our instruments and luggage (including my bass!) underneath the plane. Our pilots (those guys hanging out at The Hungry Duck the night before) and the crew boarded. I’m sure they had sobered up and were ready to go. Things apparently work differently in Russia.
We boarded the jet and took off. Our plane was about the size of a 737 and consisted mostly of orchestra members. It was obviously an older plane with strange seats that folded forward when you pushed on them. The flight was normal for the first half. Flight attendants brought us snacks and beverages, and I gazed out the window and watched the countryside go by.
All of a sudden I noticed that we were banking to the left. The plane righted itself after a minute but quickly started banking to the right. Again it leveled but then started to go down…then up…then left…then right.
A long line of excited Russian orchestra musicians was forming in front of the cockpit. I watched with curiosity as this line formed. I asked one of the other American musicians sitting next to me what was going on but they had no idea. Finally I asked a Russian musician who was still seated what was going on.
“They’re letting the musicians fly the plane,” he said.
I have an uncle who used to be a pilot. When I was young we would take a flight in one of his small propeller planes and he would give me a chance to take the co-pilot’s controls. I would make the plane bank to the left and the right just like the Russian musicians were doing. It is one thing to do this in a small propeller plane and quite another to do it on a commercial jet, however!
It’s quite a feeling being on a discarded Aeroflot jet in the middle of Russia with crazy pilots who were out partying late the night before and are now giving the musicians turns at the wheel of their commercial airliner. After a long and scary while the Russian musicians all had their turn at the controls and we made our descent. Still not believing that any pilots (even our crazy party pilots) in any country would just let random passengers take the controls, I asked a big burly cellist named Dmitri what had been going on.
“I fly plane!” he said. “Is no problem!”
The American-Russian Youth Orchestra is really a cool program. I see on their website that they haven’t done any touring since 2004, but they often skip a year or two before doing another one. I hope that this organization is still active. Maybe I would have learned more about the double bass if I had spent that summer at Aspen or Tanglewood, but I wouldn’t trade that tour for anything.