March 01, 2005

A Conservatory in Peril

Rumors, potent as legal tender in Moscow, have always figured in the history of the celebrated Moscow Conservatory. The hallowed walls resonate with countless memories of inimitable music-making. It has an incomparable pedagogical legacy. But though stories of the school’s poor condition have circulated amidst the Russian musical community for years, the recent closing of the Great Hall’s balconies set off seismic shock waves. Cries of “The balconies are falling!” and “It will have to be sold!” ricocheted through the city and out into the world’s musical community, where the alarm caught international attention. In truth, the balconies are not falling, the hall will not be sold, and the school will continue. But the realities of the school’s poor condition have gained new urgency: structural engineers have confirmed that the 103 year-old building is not only creaking – it’s very nearly floating.

The Conservatory’s gracious façade looks the same as it always has; Tchaikovsky still sits atop his monument, his gaze fixed and resolute, his arms outstretched to gifted young musicians from all over the globe. But behind its pale yellow walls, the elegant Neoclassical building, begun in 1895, begs even simple maintenance. Despite the school’s prominence as one of the world’s premiere musical institutions, conditions have been deteriorating for years. And no one seems to have understood the severity of the problems until a major fire in December 2002 prompted engineers to thoroughly examine the structure. Their findings are startling: original stone foundations have cracked and weakened, causing serious stress and instability to the walls of the three-storied building. Authorities closed the balconies of the Great Hall for fear of their collapse into the audience. “Since its completion in 1901, the school has undergone no renovation save minor cosmetic work,” said Yelena Sorokina, Vice-Rector of Performing Arts and Research. “Without major renovation in the very near future, the building may indeed collapse. Already some of the buildings around the Conservatory have been condemned and must be demolished.”

But how has this Russian cultural jewel come to such a state of crisis? Well, to begin with, the original buildings on what is now Bolshaya Nikitskaya ulitsa, some of which date to the 18th century, were built over three underground rivers. Indeed, the geological conditions of Moscow, founded on a swamp in the 11th century, have always complicated structural integrity. “Many places in Moscow are not favorable for construction, due to underground water,” said Alexei Zuyev, Vice Rector of Moscow Conservatory for Administration and General Services. “One of the negative factors that affect most buildings is the so-called ‘erosion hazard,’ which shows itself throughout the city’s older buildings. During the last decade, the level of underground waters has changed due to various man-made developments. As the ground settles and shifts, sand gets into cracks in the limestone foundations and causes craters.”

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