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Celebration: The Piano, the Borscht and the Ambassador

Celebrating Russia!: From top, Maestro William Noll; Denise Cobb, Shirley Hartmann, His Excellency Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, Natalia Kislyak; Delores Sorey, Mayor John Sorey. (SEBASTIEN GIRARD, IVAN SELIGMAN)Hindsight being 20/20, we can now say that the inaugural ArtsNaples World Festival 2012 was a rousing success. With brisk ticket sales and brilliant performances celebrating the rich cultural heritage of Russia—through theatre, music and art—attendees were treated to a spectacular week of world-class offerings. But there was still an air of uncertainty on day two of the seven-day event, when 117 lucky individuals got to attend the exclusive Russian Imperial Dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, with the personable ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, and his wife, Natalia.

The famed Russian winters seemed far removed from the sun-kissed palm trees lining the grounds of the Ritz, but organizers had the good sense to bring a little chill inside with a gorgeous ice sculpture patterned after a Russian palace. The best part? Shots of Slavianskaya vodka were poured down the sculpture’s roofline, helping to loosen up guests during a lively cocktail hour. In no time, the cultured crowd was experiencing détente.

The group was a wonderful blend of familiar society faces, arts lovers and people who knew how Dr. Zhivago ends. Yes, the Russian contingent was surprisingly strong. “It really is a magical night,” said the festival’s artistic director, Maestro William Noll, smiling from ear to ear. The words had no sooner left his mouth when the ambassador walked by with a knowing nod.

As with any inaugural event, a sense of mystery abounds, but that felt especially true as guests sipped cocktails and asked each other about what might be in store. Aside from Noll, gala chair Lacey King (herself a former diplomat and past president of the Chaine des Rotisseurs) might have been the only one with an inkling as to what might be on the evening’s agenda. Would there be trumpets? An army of attendants serving us? A caviar bar shaped like Lenin’s tomb? It seems that when you label something an Imperial Dinner, imagination tends to run rampant. At the very least, we all agreed there’d be borscht.

And while Ambassador and Mrs. Kislyak politely chatted with everyone from Naples Mayor John Sorey and his wife, Delores (she is one of the founders of ArtsNaples), to Barbara Johnson and Jerry Rose (from Jackson Hole, Wyo.), we furiously Googled Russian phrases on our iPhone that we thought might come in handy. For example, “Etot muzcina platit za vse” means “This gentleman will pay for everything” and “Moio sudno na vozdusnoy poduske polno ugrey” means “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Sadly, we weren’t able to work either phrase into polite conversation with the ambassador or his lovely wife in the short time we had prior to the meal.

When the bell finally rang to announce dinner, guests were led into an adjoining room with seating charts designed for a State affair. Understated and elegant, the room featured a dais for the dignitaries, a long main table seating 42 and seven smaller round tables, each bearing the name of a Russian point of interest—Lomonosov, The Hermitage, Marly Palace, etc. At the opposite end of the room from the dais was a lone grand piano. Once people had found their seats, Maestro Noll announced the dignitaries.

As expected, Ambassador Kislyak spoke, but his words felt more political than many in attendance anticipated. He reminded everyone that if you look at the relationship of our two countries over the course of history, it’s pretty favorable. It seems, aside from the last 70 years, plus or minus, we’re very close. In an instant, the 5,800 miles between Naples and Moscow seemed like less than half that.

“You made a good choice choosing Russia as your first choice for the festival,” said the ambassador. “Of course, I would be remiss to not take this opportunity for some propaganda … We have lived through our relationship for a long time. If you look over the course of that time, we have been allies for a long time. Yes, we have had our ups and downs. But remember, we sold Alaska to you. I recently offered your government a refund, but you didn’t accept. But I will keep trying.

“The single biggest problem is the stereotypes remaining from the Cold War. And it is on both sides,” he continued. “The truth is we are very similar. (Russia now) is a market economy. But young—20 years. But I am so proud. I think our future will be much brighter. But how to overcome these stereotypes? Two ways, I think: one, trading perhaps. Two, cultural. By far the best ways are learning about and trading with each other. I hope that you will enjoy much of what you will see and hear and I wish (the festival) all the success.”

And how about those artistic achievements of Russia that everyone came to celebrate? Maestro Noll delivered heaping helpings of Russian piano stylings in between courses of the Russian-themed meal. Spectacular yellow beet borscht with pickled baby fennel was followed by Russian pianist Philipp Kopachevsky’s dazzling performance of The Spruce. As we worked our way through chef George Fistrovich’s hot smoked sturgeon with pickled radishes and quail egg, Russian-born pianist Michael Berkovsky lit up the room with three selections from George Gershwin. But once we finished off the beef stroganoff (and thus wrapping up our gastronomic tour of Mother Russia), the room lit up with an East-meets-West blues moment as American jazz pianist Bill Davis was joined at the piano by Russian jazz pianist Maxim Lubarsky.

The moment was exactly what Maestro Noll had suggested earlier: “magic.” And it proved perfectly how political divides are bridged through the language of art. It was enough to bring Ambassador Kislyak to his feet and for the rest of the room to follow.

Ahh, glasnost. Who knew it could taste so good?

Kremlin confidential: From left, Gerry Rose and Barbara Johnson; perfectly chilled Slavianskaya vodka dripped from the eaves of a Rusian palace; caviar aplenty. (SEBASTIEN GIRARD, IVAN SELIGMAN)

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