For the concert pianist and conductor Julian Gallant, the memories of his first trip on the night sleeper from St Petersburg to Moscow are as fresh as yesterday. It was not so much the tasty pirozki snacks or endless shots of Stolichnaya that made the journey memorable, as the fact that his travelling companion sharing those pleasures would one day be Mrs Gallant.
That was five years ago. And next week at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on London's South Bank, Gallant will be conducting London's Russian Chamber Orchestra in a gala concert featuring the cream of Russian virtuosi that will include the pianist Olga Balakleets - now his wife. Gallant will be conducting the RCO in an eclectic evening of ballet, opera and orchestral works. He will also briefly desert the podium - to duet on piano with Balakleets.
Flying in specially for the evening will be soloists from Moscow's Bolshoi company, including Irina Bikulova (soprano), Andrei Grigoriev (baritone) and leading dancers Anna Atonicheva and Andrei Uvarov. Also appearing will be Catrin Finch, the royal harpist.
Gallant, who has performed with the Moscow Philharmonic and the City of London Symphonia, has duetted with his wife on concert platforms around the world. It's all part of the new direction that his career has taken since the couple first met at a Russian Embassy reception in London.
"She was just about to leave when someone said that I should meet one of the Russian musicians living in London," he recalls. The invitation changed Gallant's life. He not only fell in love with Olga, but also with Russia's rich musical culture.
Within a year, the two had set up a 20-strong orchestra to showcase Russian composers. And their Ensemble Productions now regularly arranges concert visits to Britain by many Russian virtuosi - like the violist Yuri Bashmet and the legendary baritone Dmitri Hvorostovski, as well as leading opera and ballet companies.
Gallant confesses that he once he knew little of Russia, its people or culture. Now, how-ever, he regards himself as part of a growing network dedicated to proselytising for a richly diverse cultural community struggling to come to terms with the post-Soviet era.
Last year, he was asked to head up the Russian British Cultural Association to encour-age two-way exchange. And in May he will personally be acting as guide on the first of Intourist's cultural tours, which will include backstage visits to Russia's iconic venues like the Bolshoi and St Petersburg's Mariinsky theatre.
"There's nothing quite like being there," says Gallant. "Russian performers just live for being on stage - with every breath they take. It's a fairy tale come true.
"I can't count how many times I've been to Moscow, Samara, and Omsk - and there's always something magical about the night train from St Petersburg."
Russian New Year Gala, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242; www.rfh.prg.uk), 12 JanuaryReuse content