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City news, 24.11.2003 17:40

Ann Arbor connects with Russia

Ann Arbor connects with Russia Ann Arbor can be forgiven if it's feeling a little St. Petersburged-out just now. Today marks the winding down, if not the end, of a season-long University of Michigan festival celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Russian cultural capital.

A few events are still to come, notably a "Celebrating St. Petersburg" concert by Arthur Greene, chairman of U-M's piano department, in Rackham Auditorium at 8 p.m. Dec. 4; and a couple of performances in February. But most of the marquee events -"Boris Godunov," the Kirov Orchestra, Suzanne Farrell Ballet - have already passed. And today is the last day for the keystone of the festival, "The Romanovs Collect: European Art from the Hermitage" at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Although St. Petersburg's tricentennial has been noted worldwide, Ann Arbor's observance has been one of the most extensive anywhere. But given that the city deserves all this attention, why has so much of it come from a smallish town in the midwestern United States, even a fairly sophisticated one?

There are good reasons.

Museum director James Steward jumped at the chance to partner with the Hermitage, one of the world's great museums. But there was more to it.

"St. Petersburg was one of the world's first planned cities. It was in a sense built on culture," he said, drawing a parallel here: "This community is unusually vibrant ... So much of Ann Arbor is (also) built around culture." Just as St. Petersburg's institutions displayed the city's core values, so do the treasures here.

Meantime, the University Musical Society was more than happy to jump in with both feet, having been struck for years with the cultural ties down the centuries between Russia and the West. The tricentennial proved a chance to take advantage of unusual programming opportunities.

"For us it quickly made sense to develop it into more of a festival," UMS marketing and communications director Sara Billmann said. "We know that this community likes that kind of in-depth approach to the arts."

Add to that the programming ability and the expertise of the university's Center for Russian and East European studies, not to mention a host of other university and community organizations that love to participate in this type of thing, and suddenly we're in the middle of St. Petersburg West.

Regardless of why the festival became so ambitious here, there's no question that it succeeded. Steward said the museum expected maybe 30,000 people for "The Romanovs," but will end up with more than 45,000. Helped by news coverage as far away as Chicago and Philadelphia, this show has boasted the museum's second highest ticketed attendance, behind only its Monet blockbuster in 1998. (Steward even said today isn't too late, for those who still want to attend: "We'll stay open as long as we need to, to make sure our visitors can see the show.")

Billmann, meanwhile, said more than 13,300 people attended the UMS-sponsored events, about 91 percent of total capacity. "We were very close to sold out on every single performance that was part of the festival," she said. "Everything was incredibly well attended."

And then there are the university and community events in addition. All in all, a whole lot of people soaked up a whole lot of Russian-related culture, and it might not have worked out so well in another city this size.

The ultimate answer for why Ann Arbor went so crazy for St. Petersburg may well be this: because it could pull it off.

Reach arts and entertainment editor Bob Needham at (734) 994-6825.

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