Pulling strings, pushing buttons Music: World Cello Congress organizer, unbowed by Russian bureaucracy, delivers the goods.

February 19, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Forget the notorious Russian mafia standing ready to extort money from any successful business operation. Forget the bureaucratic red tape that makes "Catch-22" sound like a fairy-tale.

Helene Breazeale has met the enemy, and it is switchboard operators who screen calls to secretaries, secretaries whose job description doesn't include message-taking, and executives who make -- and break -- deals based on the CEO's daily mood.

A 5-foot-2 former ballerina charged by Towson State University to produce the second World Cello Congress here in July, Breazeale has developed a reputation as one who won't take "nyet" for an answer. Her persistance paid off yesterday during the official announcement of the lineup for the cello convention, which is scheduled to run July 1-8.

Breazeale has spent two grueling years shuttling between St. Petersburg and Baltimore trying to raise money and rouse excitement about the cello. And she jokes that her entreaties received more attention from the Prince of Wales -- an accomplished cellist who actually sent regrets to an invitation to perform at the congress -- than they did from many American or Russian corporations.

But yesterday, the cello congress suddenly took center stage, attracting a hall full of government officials, international press and business sponsors. Everyone fawned over the congress' president, Russia's beloved conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Rostropovich waxed long and poetic about his anticipation of 200 cellos playing en masse here this summer and swiped a bit at the overrated violin, which produces what he called "a mosquito" of sound.

Perhaps an obscure event to the man on the street -- after all, not many remember that the first World Cello Congress was held at the University of Maryland in 1988 -- it is a major hoedown in the cello world.

The week-long convention is expected to draw 500 world-class cellists, cello students, cello teachers, cello makers, and just plain cello groupies. Cecylia Barczyk, Towson State's resident cellist, will perform the premiere of an unpublished, Claude Poulenc suite discovered in Paris by Towson's state's music department chairman Carl Schmidt. Paula Zahn, the CBS news anchor and an accomplished cellist, will even take the stage.

And Rostropovich will perform -- though when and where remainthe maestro's "surprise," says Breazeale, only flinching slightly at accommodating the whim of the congress' major draw. It's the least she can do, given the stakes involved for Towson State. Rostropovich has promised that if the second World Cello Congress is successful here, he'll bring the third to Towson in 2000. And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has agreed to perform there as well.

"It would take a lot more money spent in different ways to get as much attention as we're getting from this, and it helps in changing our image from a teacher's college to a world-class institution," said Hoke Smith, Towson State University president, who was in St. Petersburg yesterday for the press conference.

Those who know the ropes here might say it would have been easier to buy the publicity than to take on what Breazeale has. Once she charged past armed guards to get to a CEO's office after a switchboard operator refused to put her calls through. Eventually, her efforts dislodged a $10,000 donation.

"More than anything else I wanted to do this," says Breazeale, who founded Towson State's dance program and its dance exchange with the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1989. "It's challenging to take something from nothing. We started with a blank paper on the desk and created it all."

She's in charge of everything from name tags to sheet music, hotel rooms to concert halls as well as raising the remaining $150,000 for the congress' $500,000 budget. She's coordinating all the travel, lodging and scheduling for 74 high-strung guest performers from 17 countries. That includes two airline seats for each performer -- one for the artist, one for the cello.

Breazeale spends weeks at a time working out of a rented pre-revolutionary apartment on the Moika Canal here with her assistant, Sergei Zverev, a nuclear physicist who emigrated from Russia to Baltimore two years ago.

That the project has gotten this far is a miracle, say those with experience in entertainment production here.

"To organize anything in Russia takes the patience of a martyr," observes Charlie Hernandez, a respected American production manager who takes big acts all over the world. He says he never experienced worse customs, government hang-ups and blatant attempts at fraud than when he handled a David Bowie concert last summer in Moscow.

Breazeale has plenty of good-natured survival tales. It didn't take her long to learn that in Russia, taking messages is not standard practice. Asking people to "call back in the second half of the day" is the standard Russian dodge, she says.

While she won't take "no" for an answer, Breazeale has learned that in Russia you can't always take "yes" at face value either.

Two years ago, a St. Petersburg bank executive actually offered to fund the whole congress, even going so far as to tell Breazeale to stop seeking other sponsors. She didn't stop the search, but she was still hugely disappointed when the executive quit returning phone calls and eventually confessed that the bank president's "mood" had changed.

By contrast, she marvels, "Mobil, who we never even met with, just sends a $35,000 check in the mail as easy as that."

There are still four months to go and St. Petersburg vice governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who heads the region's culture ministry, just shakes his head at what he clearly considers an American breed of woman. "She's a charming lady," he says, "but she makes decisions like a man."

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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