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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Musical Trolleybus Travels the Garden Ring

For MTPassengers on the Blue Trolleybus listening to a performance by singer-songwriter Sergei Matveyenko during a trip around the Garden Ring this weekend.
Musical entertainment on Moscow's public transportation is hardly a novelty -- if the blare from a 14-year-old's headphones counts as entertainment. But thanks to the initiative of Tatyana Matalina and the Moscow Cultural Committee, city dwellers with a more mature taste in music can circle the Garden Ring while being serenaded by guitar-playing bards. And hitting traffic only means extra encores.

From a distance, the Blue Trolleybus could be any other trolleybus in the city. While it stands beside the Peking Hotel on the Garden Ring before its regular Saturday afternoon departures, more than a few people dash up the street and through the doors before the sight of a man tuning his guitar stops them short.

Microphone wires are laced through the handlebars. Portraits of famous singer-songwriters from the 1960s, '70s and '80s decorate the windows: Vladimir Vysotsky, Yevgeny Klyachkin, Bulat Okudzhava and others. Such artists came to be known as bards for their highly poetic, often unrecorded songs that captured the reality of daily Soviet life in a way officially approved music rarely did. At 100 rubles ($3.50) per ticket, the trolleybus devoted to their legacy costs nearly seven times more than a usual bus, but none of the passengers on a recent Saturday ride were complaining. Many had reserved their seats in advance.

Yury Bensman sat beaming with his wife and daughter as the trolleybus pulled away from the curb and singer Sergei Matveyenko launched into his first song.

"I love this music more than anything in the world," Bensman said. "I saw a brochure about this trolleybus at the Festival of Bard Songs in June, and I had to come."

Matveyenko's songs rang out -- both inside the bus and out -- as the trolleybus made its way around the Garden Ring. Matalina, who stood at Matveyenko's side and told stories about the bards between songs, called passengers' attention to the scene outside: As the bus rolled slowly over Krymsky Most, pedestrians on the bridge craned their necks, puzzled at first, then smiling. A pair of policemen looked up from a document check, as did the nervous-looking man who had just handed over his passport. A group of construction workers stopped work to wave.

"Come ride with us!" Matveyenko called to them at the end of a song. Speakers on top of the bus carried his voice outside.

Matalina approached the Moscow Committee on Culture last year with the proposal that brought the Blue Trolleybus into being. As a lifelong fan of Vysotsky and his contemporaries and the director of the City Center for Bard Songs, Matalina was looking for a way to bring the music to a wider audience -- and to combine it with the daily life of the city that the songs vividly describe.

She does not take credit for finding the solution. "Okudzhava thought it up," she said, referring to a line in one of the bard's songs that gave the Blue Trolleybus its name. Matalina pointed out Okudzhava's one-time residence at 43 Arbat to passengers during the ride.

The trolleybus started operation in January, making eight to nine trips each Saturday. Its 25 seats are usually filled. The price of tickets covers payment for the driver and the performers; the culture committee pays for the bus rental and audio equipment.

Mieke Woestenburg / For MT

Singer-songwriter Sergei Matveyenko, left, performing a bard song while bus director Tatyana Matalina looks on.

"The city has been very generous," Matalina said.

Decades of acquaintance with local musicians has given Matalina plenty of options when she is choosing her performers.

"Tatyana picked me out at a festival of bard music 15 years ago when I was all of 17," said singer-songwriter Alexei Kudryavtsev. "When she invited me to perform on the trolleybus, I was more than happy to."

One picture-perfect young couple sharing a bench last Saturday seemed to be in a film all their own -- and they were. A group of local film students had come to shoot a scene in what director Denis Rodnyansky called "a psychological drama." His small crew weaved among the other passengers, darting in to fix the hair of the heroine, student actress Yulia Telpukhova, and take light meter readings as the sun shifted through the window.

Rodnyansky first rode the Blue Trolleybus at a friend's recommendation and thought it would be ideal for a scene. He gave the old director's caveat that you never know what you have until you see the footage, but said: "The whole atmosphere of the bus was perfect. The relaxing ride, the views, the lovely singing -- it was just what we needed."

To be safe, the actors and crew stayed on for a second take during the next ride.

They were joined by a passenger who was feeling nostalgic even before the music started.

"We used to get together all the time to sing these songs. I still have so many good, fond memories: all the close friends, the guests, the guitars," said Lidia, a woman in her sixties who declined to give her last name. She learned of the Blue Trolleybus only when she won two tickets in a radio call-in contest.

Lidia wondered whether such gatherings were part of the past. "Everyone would take part. Someone would read a poem, someone else would sing. I don't know whether young people do that kind of thing anymore," she said.

The songs, at least, live on.