In October, 2011, with the blessing of his Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), a select group of singers belonging to the Rachmaninoff Festival Choir of America travelled to Russia to represent the traditions of the Russian choral art as preserved and advanced in emigration. Led by Artistic Director Irina Shachneva and Choir Manager Elizabeth Ledkovsky, the ensemble comprised of 24 singers, most of whom are church musicians from ROCOR parishes across the USA and Canada. The primary purpose of the trip was to participate in an International Choir Festival honoring the 450th anniversary of the landmark St. Basil’s church on Red Square in Moscow, blessed by His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill. This festival spanned the cities of Nizhniy Novgorod, Suzdal, and Moscow, where the group performed numerous times to great acclaim, earning Ms. Shachneva and the ensemble Deeds of Gratitude from the Russian Federation’s Minister of Culture, A.A. Adveev. See: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/news/49224.htm In addition, the choir sang in a number of churchly contexts, including the Moscow Synodal Pokrov Choral Festival, under the leadership of choirmasters protodeacon Vadim Gan and Sergei Chidlowsky, performing the sacred works of leading émigré composers in both concert and liturgical settings.
The project was funded by private sponsors from the USA and Russia, by the singers themselves, and with a generous grant from the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.
IN CONCERT: Achievements on stage
The International Choir Festival honoring the 450th anniversary of the famous St. Basil’s church culminated in a series of events in Moscow, beginning on Pokrov, the main feast day of the landmark cathedral, October 14, 2011. (See http://www.saintbasil.ru/450ann_choir.htmlfor a listing of other participants.) Leading up to the big-city events were programs outside of Moscow.
The festival began on October 10th in Nizhniy Novgorod, the city on the legendary Volga. The choir traveled there by bus from Suzdal, where the group was staying. Arriving mid-day, they had an opportunity to visit the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and to wander the city for a short time, taking in local sights — including the shores of the mighty river, known to and beloved by the group through so many classic Russian songs. The concert that evening was at the Glinka Conservatory, alma mater to Ms. Shachnevaand an opportunity for her to demonstrate to her pedagogues, colleagues and former classmates her fully realized talent at molding a fine choral instrument of even a group of untrained singers.
Most choirs in Russia are comprised of professional vocalists who complete a rigorous musical education and rehearse and perform together regularly. In contrast, the Rachmaninoff Festival Choir’s members, though dedicated and talented, are mere amateurs. Moreover, they live at great distances from each other and thus are rarely able to rehearse together. In fact, the only chances the complete group had to work together were in Russia, immediately prior to performances. Audience members expressed surprise at the outstanding quality of the performance given the likely effects of jet-lag, but when they learned about the extremely limited amount of rehearsal, they expressed utter disbelief. The concert program featured a few secular works, but the central works were sacred compositions of the Russian emigration’s best known composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the lesser known Boris Ledkovsky, longtime choirmaster at ROCOR’s Synodal Cathedral in New York City. Ms. Shachneva took care to explain to the conservatory’s packed concert hall that Russian culture thrived abroad during the Soviet era. She presented three works by Ledkovsky as evidence of the musical and spiritual legacy of the emigration.
These were well received, with many present inquiring after the performance about where to obtain scores by this composer. Indeed, the show-stopper was a performance of Ledkovsky’s setting of the Paschal hymn to the Virgin, Ангел вопияше, featuring the solo by counter-tenor Andrey Nemzer, whose lyrical voice surprised and dazzled the audience. A Russian television report about the concert at Glinka Conservatory and the festival is available here: http://www.nntv.nnov.ru/?id=52846).
The choir’s “home-base” for the first half of the tour was in Suzdal. On their first full day in Russia, the group took a tour of this historic locale, along with nearby Vladimir. Quite a few of the singers were in Russia for the first time, and most had never been to these outlying cities of the “Golden Ring” before.
The area’s natural beauty as well as its many churches, filled with holy relics and centuries old icons and frescoes (including those of St. Andre Rublev) inspired the musicians, even to impromptu performances in several churches. An official concert, in tandem with the male choir BLAGOVEST (whose director Lev Pankratov organized the festival), was sung at the St. Euthymius Monastery’s Transfiguration Cathedral to an appreciative audience. Again, a highlight of the concert was Ledkovsky’s Ангел вопияше, this time featuring the young soprano Anisia Temidis, one of seven singers assisted by the generous scholarships provided by the Fund For Assistance. After the performance, both choirs convened for a celebratory banquet at a traditional Suzdal guest-house, the Vintage Hotel Surikova.
The choir traveled to Moscow by bus on October 13, the eve of the Holy Feast of Pokrov. Due to traffic jams, they arrived behind schedule, with little time to rehearse before being shown to their accommodations, provided by a host choir, ELEGIA. After a morning in church (see below) the ensemble made its way to Red Square, to open the Moscow portion of the Festival in the Historical Museum.
This spectacular venue, with its intricately decorated walls and excellent acoustics, was filled to standing-room only. Under Ms. Shachneva’s impassioned direction, the choir sang a stirring program, moving some to tears and bringing the cheering listeners to their feet. Mr. Pankratov conveyed Minister Adveev’s salutations and certificates to Ms. Shachneva and Ms. Ledkovsky. The concert concluded with a performance by the famed St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, led by Nikolai Korniev. The choir’s final performance was on Sunday, October 16, at the famed music school Vesna. There, the Rachmaninoff Festival Choir and host ensemble ELEGIA, led by director Marina Alekseeva, both gave spirited performances, concluding with several jointly sung pieces directed in turn by Maestras Shachneva and Alekseeva.
Perhaps because it was the last formal performance, the final chords rang out with particular resonance and emotion. Many eyes glistened with tears as the audience cheered calling “encore!”. The evening concluded with a joyous reception, replete with a generous table, more singing and warm camaraderie. Plans began to be laid for a reunion in 2012, when the Americans will again host the International Rachmaninoff Music Festival in Boston.
IN CHURCH: Representing ROCOR inside Russia
The Rachmaninoff Festival Choir took on a mission to carry the traditions of émigré musicians back to the motherland. Not only was its concert program built around the works of Russian composers who ended up abroad, but it sought opportunities to sing in church as well.
While in Suzdal, this mission was carried out in an overtly educational way at the St. Euthymius Monastery, at the lyceum school of its St. Michael the Archangel Church. Ms. Shachneva spoke instructively and lovingly to the students, and she and two of the ensemble’s precentors, protodeacon Vadim Gan and Sergei Chidlowsky, led the choir in singing various liturgical pieces. Afterwards, Ms. Ledkovsky presented the rector with a small copy of the Kursk-Root Icon and distributed American candies to all the children. (see: http://www.mihali-suzdal.ru/2011/10/12/)
The choir sang Divine Liturgy on two occasions during the trip. On the great feast of Pokrov, protodeacon Vadim led the choir in a service co-sung with the Moscow Synodal Choir, led by A. A. Puzakov, at the Church of the Joy of All Who Sorrow on Bol’shaja Ordynka. For Russian liturgical musicians, this church is a place with special significance, as it was the home of the legendary precentor, N.A. Matfeev. Matfeev’s liturgical music recordings during the Soviet era are beloved by those who grew up during the Cold War — an era when most Russian choirs were forced to change sacred texts to atheist lyrics or nonsense syllables. Matfeev managed to maintain a diverse liturgical repertoire, inspiring countless budding musicians who are now leading choirmasters and singers.
Thus, several participants were deeply moved by the opportunity to be part of the first émigré group sing in “Matfeev’s” church, especially on the feast day of Pokrov, which is also the commemoration of St. Roman the Melodist, a heavenly patron of musicians. Also significant was the collaboration with the Moscow Synodal Choir, the descendant of the very choir in which B. Ledkovsky sang and studied with A.D. Kastalsky a century earlier. Mindful of this, Father Vadim chose a repertoire exclusively of works by Ledkovsky and his émigré peers including M.S. Konstantinov and N.N. Kedrov. The service was also the official start of a special festival of sacred music organized by Ms. Puzakov and the Moscow Synodal Choir. (for more details about this festival, see: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/news/49108.htm)
After the conclusion of Divine Liturgy, officiated by Archimandrite Cyril (Hovorun), the leadership of the Rachmaninoff Festival Choir presented gifts for the rector, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev) and choirmaster Puzakov, including a small copy of the Kursk-Root Icon and a book about its history, as well as books of printed music and CD recordings featuring music that had been sung that day. All parties expressed sincere hope that collaboration between the two ensembles would continue in the future.
That Sunday, the Rachmaninoff Choir was again blessed to sing Divine Liturgy in collaboration with the professional choir led by N.A. Myshkin, in the Church of Our Lady of Kazan at Kolomonskoe — the home of the miraculous “Derzhavnaja” icon. Aware that many ROCOR faithful hold this icon dear, Maestro Myshkin arranged for the visiting choir to sing standing directly in front of it. Ms. Shachneva and Mr. Chidlowsky shared duties leading the choir (protod. Vadim had been invited by his Holiness the Patriarch to serve at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that day). Again, the Festival Choir’s repertoire was exclusively works composed in emigration (a highlight being Rachmaninoff’s Тебе поем). In contrast, Mr. Myshkin selected repertoire of Moscow composers such as P.G. Chesnokov, whose “Staro-simonovskaja” cherubic hymn was expressively sung. After Divine Liturgy, presenting officiating priest Father Alexei Moiseiev with gifts, Ms. Ledkovsky remarked that many of the Festival Choir’s members frequently sing in the presence of another great holy object, the wonder-working Kursk-Root Icon. She noted that collaborations among church musicians and clergy can effect great ties among the disparate membership of the Holy Church, adding a sincere expression of hope that the singers of the Kazanskaja Church would someday be able to visit the Cathedral in New York to sing before the Kursk-Root Icon, to experience the same joy that the Rachmaninoff Festival Singers had felt that day, offering their voices in prayer before the “Derzhavnaja” image. Thereafter, the choir was treated to a sumptuous banquet prepared by the parishioners. In contrast to the grand cathedrals that all had experienced in central Moscow, this church community had the familiar and welcome feeling of a cozy приход.Clergy joined the guests at the table and all shared stories about parish life and impressions of life inside Russia as contrasted to the life of Russians living in emigration. Conversation was lively and warm, despite the fact that, after eight days of traveling and singing, with very little rest, the Americans were nearing the limits of physical exhaustion (several of the travelers fell sick during the tour, yet managed to fulfill their singing duties superbly). Reluctantly, both choirs began to disperse, as there were evening concerts to be sung. They gathered quickly for a group photograph (at right) before parting.
YOUTH: Experiencing the Church Inside Russia
The Fund for Assistance provided a grant for this project, which helped fund the travel expenses of seven singers: church workers, seminarians, and college students. The majority of the scholarship recipients had never before been to Russia. Below are comments from some of them, reflecting on the journey: This trip to Russia was a trip of a lifetime. I know that it would not have been made possible for me to go if I hadn’t been sponsored and for that I will be eternally grateful. There were so many gorgeous churches and buildings that were shown to us and these moments will never be forgotten. On a more spiritual level however, getting a chance to see all of the relics that we did made me realize how lucky I was and still am to be chosen for a scholarship…I will never be able to express how grateful I truly am to every single person who made this possible for me.
Being able to perform on stage at the Conservatory was an amazing experience, I feel that the audience really appreciated our talents and effort to perform our concert repertoire. My personal experiences and vpechatleniye in Suzdal are indescribable… Being able to Sing Liturgy in the famous Cathedral “Joy of all Who Sorrow” was an amazing experience for me personally. This is a church in which a choir sung, a choir that produced records that my father grew up listening and in my earlier years and still currently, I listen to the old recording now on CD. To think that a personal friend, protodeacon Vadim Gan, was the first member of the church abroad that conducted there — a dream to MANY if not all choir directors! Singing Liturgy, while standing just a few footsteps away from the miraculous Derzhavnaya Icon is also an experience that not many are privileged to experience…. Thank you so much for making this amazing opportunity possible for me!
This visit was my first to Russia. I finally got to see where I come from, where my ancestors lived, where our language, culture and, most importantly, our faith originated and why my family preserved them. … Aside from the cultural aspect of the trip, singing with the Festival Choir was truly an honor. We sang beautiful sacred music for people who share our love for our faith and also, secular music which they all recognized and cherish. I believe it was important to share our ROCOR sacred music with them and show them that Russians do exist outside of Russia. … I truly believe that I was a little closer to God while singing these wonderful words of praise. It was an honor sing with this talented choir … I cannot begin to express how thankful I am to have been able to travel to Russia, experience these moments, do what I love and learn from these experiences which have only bettered me as a singer and as a Christian. Without your benevolent aid, this would have been impossible for many, including me. Thank you for giving me the trip of a lifetime.
The Rachmaninoff Festival Choir achieves an extraordinary level of artistry, provides countless enriching experiences for its own members and for its audiences, and builds bridges with Orthodox musicians inside Russia. What is most unusual is that for this Russia Tour, organizers managed all these things without much of a budget and with very little overhead, relying on the generous efforts of volunteers to organize and coordinate many details. Capturing the momentum of such a signal project, the organizers have vowed to further the cause and continue building relations. A core group of leaders has volunteered to serve as a Board of Directors for a not-for-profit charitable corporation that will operate the choir and oversee future programs. The next endeavor is to host the Second International Rachmaninoff Music Festival in Boston, May 24 -27, 2012, culminating in a concert at Jordan Hall. Elegia and Blagovest are among the invited guest performers, in continuation of the international collaboration. Choirmasters N.A. Myshkin and A.A. Puzakov also remain in contact with the choir’s leadership, and it is hoped they could be invited to sing in ROCOR churches as well as on American concert stages. It is no secret that music has an extraordinary effect on God’s creatures. The love of dedicated church musicians for their edifying work is an especially potent force that can and should be tapped to unify people, as this endeavor has shown. May it be God’s will to grant us the resources and faith to carry forward with our work in a manner pleasing to Him and beneficial to His Holy Church and its children, both in Russia and, of course, in emigration.