|Craig Hella Johnson and soloists of the Conspirare Company of Voices|
Conspirare Company of Voices
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor
St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in
downtown Austin was miraculously transformed into a Russian Cathedral last
weekend as Conspirare presented a concert of Russian Orthodox liturgical music.
It was astonishing to hear the 41 voices of the Company of Voices singing their
hearts out with total command of both the language and the style of the music.
Conspirare’s artistic director and
conductor, Craig Hella Johnson, (photo: right) has boundless imagination when it comes to
programming; once again, he presented Austin audiences with some unusual and
deeply satisfying musical nourishment.
The Russian Orthodox Church dates back
to the Tenth Century (988 A.D.) and has its roots in the Byzantine form of
Christianity. For much of its history, the music written for the Russian
Orthodox Liturgy was required to be ‘a cappella,’ or unaccompanied. The music
we heard in this concert was entirely ‘a cappella,’ and while some of it made
use of the ancient Znamenny chants, most of it was written within the last 125
years. Stylistically, it is conservative as one might expect from a church so
steeped in tradition; nonetheless, it was surprisingly varied and totally
As Always, Meticulous Preparation
One of the world’s leading authorities
on Russian liturgical music, Vladimir Morosan, acted as program advisor and
consultant for this concert. He gave a pre-concert talk before last weekend’s
concerts, and also wrote notes for the program book, which point out that over
time “Russian church singing was enriched by stylistic borrowings from the
Polish Baroque, the Italian stile antico, Viennese classicism, and German Romanticism,”
and that women were finally allowed to sing in Russian Orthodox Cathedrals at
the beginning of the 1880s.
Conspirare concerts often begin with a choral
processional from the back of the church to the performing space in front of
the altar. This somewhat theatrical device is entirely appropriate in a church
and it was used to great effect in this concert of Russian sacred music.
What a way to begin a concert! It was
thrilling to hear Tchaikovsky’s “Come, Let Us Worship,” surrounded by the
singers. This happened again with even greater success later in the concert as
the choir members sang from opposite sides of the church in an ecstatic
performance of Gretchaninoff’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the “Sunday Communion
Hymn” by Pavel Chesnokov.
There was music on the program by only
one living composer, Vladimir Martynov (photo: right). Martynov was born in Moscow in 1946 and
has had an interesting and varied career. Early on he dabbled in serialism and
later started a rock group. He was then attracted to minimalism and from the
1980s on, he devoted himself to writing music for the Russian Orthodox Church.
His best-known work is “The Beatitudes,” a piece that exists in many versions,
including one for string quartet recorded by the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch.
The version we heard in Austin for three soprano soloists and ‘a cappella’
chorus, performed by the Company of Voices, was extraordinarily beautiful. The voices
of the soloists soared and the choir provided a hummed background in perfect
balance. Conspirare is recording this concert for release by Harmonia Mundi. I
would venture to add that if they wanted to go in that direction, I am sure “The
Beatitudes” could easily become a ‘hit single’ as a download.
Low Notes a Highlight!
One of the highlights of the concert
was certainly Chesnokov’s “Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age,” a deeply
affecting plea by a frail, elderly man for God’s help at a time when he fears
his enemies will take advantage of his vulnerability. Chesnokov composed the
piece for a basso profondo solo voice with choir, and the soloist is required
to sing some of the lowest notes ever written for the human voice. Amazingly,
Conspirare had just the man for the job - Glenn Miller, Director of Music and
Organist at Kirk in the Hills (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan). Mr. Miller hit each
note with accuracy and the most sonorous expression one could imagine.
Low bass notes are not unknown in
classical music; perhaps the lowest ever written by an Eighteenth Century
composer is to be found in Osmin’s part in Mozart opera’s “The Abduction from
the Seraglio.” Mozart wrote a D almost two octaves below middle C. More than a
century later, Mahler called for an even lower note – a B flat more than two octaves below middle C. Chesnokov’s
extraordinary piece has a C exactly two octaves below middle C.
One of the qualities that has long
distinguished Russian choirs is the ‘blackness’ of the bass section. Basses in
Russian choirs seem to be able to sing lower than their counterparts in other
countries. This is one reason – another would be the difficulty of the language
– that American choirs rarely sound convincing in this repertoire. But thanks
to Mr. Miller and his colleagues in the Company of Voices, the concert of
Russian sacred music we heard in Austin last week had exactly the unearthly
Russian sound that the music requires.
"The Sacred Spirit of Russia” was a glorious experience for me. I
suspect that for many listeners in the audience at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
in Austin last week, it was a jaw-dropping introduction to a rich tradition of
inspiring and uplifting music.
Vladimir Morosan has built a large
collection of Russian choral scores and made many of them available as sheet
music published by Musica Russica. Much of this music is available for sale on
his website along
with a wide range of recordings of Russian choral literature.
Labels: Austin Texas, classical music blog, Conspirare Company of Voices, Craig Hella Johnson, Glenn Miller, Martynov, Russian liturgical music, Vladimir Morosan