A few days ago a huge stage was erected by the Trinity-Sergius monastery walls here in Sergiyev Posad. That was the night when Tchaikovsky’s best-loved opera, Eugene Onegin was given. Bolshoi soloists came, and the conductor was Yuri Bashmet.
A few hours before that a man was playing the harmonica at a very ordinary bench near the Konny Dvor museum. His name is Gena Portnoy, he’s a 54-year-old sing-what-I-see musician and tailor. Portnoy is a Russian word for tailor. No promotion, no wicked VIP zones, no money given.
It was a few months ago when I first him. A badly shaven chap came across. ‘Look here, d’you like music or not?’ That was an industrial zone by the railway line and the bakery plant. You never know what may happen next. Yes, I murmured, why wouldn’t one? ‘Find me on YouTube! Gena Portnoy’ — I’ve heard as I walked away.
Once we’ve had a street harmonica player in Sergiyev Posad. His name was Alexey Pavlovich. He sang with an uncontrolled voice, his rhymes were losing its melody, then took a form of another, flew high above the ground and came back to start it all over again. He witnessed the war, people said, and he was told by the doctor to have a go at singing as a way of healing the wounds.
We haven’t heard the harmonica on the streets for seven years, and now there’s Gena Portnoy.
He sells aprons at the underpass beside the monastery walls. Yesenin (a romantic Russian poet), fabrics and harmonica are my main influences, he says. He is a self-taught musician, he sings about everything he sees — a dog with a leash, a courting couple or someone he knows, a woman named Irina who is looking at the waste bin contents at that very moment.
As a farewell, he always says this — ‘Find me on YouTube! Gena Portnoy’.