La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Sacred Spirit of Russia in Texas

Craig Hella Johnson and soloists of the Conspirare Company of Voices

Music by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Gretchaninoff, Kastalsky, Martynov, Ippolitov-Ivanov and others
Conspirare Company of Voices
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor
St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas
February 2, 2013

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 engrossing.

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.

For something more…
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.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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Monday, 4 February 2013

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 4 - 10)

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 4 - 10)

- Joseph So

Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener in COC's Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Michael Cooper)

This past week and the upcoming couple of weeks represent true nirvana for Toronto opera fans. The Canadian Opera Company's winter season is in full swing with Tristan und Isolde and La clemenza di Tito. I saw the opening Tristan and it turned out to be a truly memorable night at the opera.  Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, in great voice, finally got to sing his signature role in his adopted home town of Toronto. Making her role debut as Isolde, German soprano Melanie Diener proved that her voice is perfect for Isolde.  I heard her as Fiordiligi and more recently as the Marschallin, but to jump from that rep to Wagner is really quite daunting. But she proved on opening night that she is already an Isolde of one's dreams, singing with gleaming tone. Her stage presence is aristocratic and full of womanly warmth. Vocally she was tireless, the last note as beautiful and opulent as her first. Franz Josef Selig was a huge voiced King Marke and American baritone Alan Held a terrific Kurwenal. Conductor Johannes Debus, in his first T&I with only eight weeks notice, conducted like an old hand, coaxing torrents of gorgeous sound from the COC Orchestra. It was an evening I won't soon forget.  

Keri Alkema (Vitellia) and Isabel Leonard (Sesto) in La clemenza di Tito (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the opening of La clemenza di Tito, and it was equally memorable. Top vocal honours belonged to American mezzo Isabel Leonard as an incredible Sesto - great Parto, parto. Her excellence was matched by the others in the cast, notably Canadian tenor Michael Schade, newly slimmed down and sounding his old Mozartian self, as a dramatically riveting Tito. American soprano Keri Alkema, last heard locally as Giulietta in Hoffmann, outdid herself as a tremendous Vitellia. Former COC Ensemble member mezzo Wallis Giunta exuded star power in the supporting role of Annio, and current Ensemble soprano Mireille Asselin made a lovable Servilia. Bass Robert Gleadow, in full Roman military drag, was an imposing Publio. Fast-rising Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen, all of 29 years old, conducted an extremely impressive performance of this Mozart masterpiece. He did not allow space for applause after some of the arias, making sure the music was not impeded, at the same time he allowed daringly long pauses in important dramatic moments. The audience was generally well behaved, although at the end a few in the audience showed their displeasure towards the creative team, mostly Christopher Alden. Seeing these two terrific shows at the COC in quick succession makes me feel so lucky to be living in Toronto. Absolutely not to be missed - Tristan und Isolde (Feb. 8 at 6:30 pm with alternate cast of Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray); La clemenza di Tito (Feb. 7 and 9 at 7:30 pm).  

Additionally, a special performance with artists from the COC Ensemble Studio is on for Wednesday Feb. 6, with mezzo Rihab Chaieb (Sesto), Christopher Enns/Owen McCausland (Tito), Ambur Braid (Vitellia), Sasha Djihanian (Annio), Claire de Sevigny (Servilia), and Neil Craighead (Publio). This is a great chance to hear these stars of tomorrow.  All performances at the Four Seasons Centre.

German tenor Michael Baba as Tristan und Isolde on Feb. 8

American soprano Margaret Jane Wray makes her COC debut as Isolde (Photo:

Two notable events this week at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. American pianist, harpsichordist and conductor Stephen B. Hargreaves presents Variations on 1930, an intriguing program of Copland, Britten and Kodaly to Art Tatum's transcription of Tea for Two (Tues. Feb. 5).   On Thurs. Feb. 7, Albanian-Canadian pianist Rudin Lengo plays Liszt and Mussorgsky. Program details at  Be sure to show up an hour ahead to ensure a seat. 

With the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in hiatus this week, there is less symphonic offerings than usual. Tafelmusik has an unusual event this week, a special screening of the 1984 music Amadeus at their usual venue of Trinity St Paul's Centre on Friday Feb. 8 at 7 pm. It is labeled as Director's Cut, with Tafelmusik cellist Allen Whear as speaker. They are offering free pop corn but bring your own blanket and lawn chair!

For years, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music has been presenting "Opera Tea" in the afternoon, an informal event of opera scenes and arias with U of T students. On Sunday Feb. 10 2:30 pm at the MacMillan Theatre, baritone Russell Braun is conducting - yes, conducting instead of singing! - von Flotow's Martha. I don't know who the artists are but I am betting on the excellent tenor Andrew Haji singing "Ach so fromm" which he has sung so beautifully in the past. He is joining the COC Ensemble Studio for the 2013-14 season.

The Toronto Masque Theatre is presenting Les Roses de la Vie, a cabaret evening of music, song, poetry, film and movement, "evoking the magic and beauty of Paris."  It features tenor Colin Ainsworth, sopranos Teri Dunn and Agnes Zsigovics. Unfortunately the event is sold out but do call for returns.

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