American Professional Choir Conspirare Performs Russian Sacred Music

One of the finest professional choirs in America—Conspirare, under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson—based in Austin, Texas, is presenting a set of four concerts entitled “The Sacred Spirit of Russia“.  The concerts take place on January 31 in Fredericksburg, Texas, and February 1-3, in Austin, Texas. (See the link above for times and venues.) The entire program consists of works by composers of the “new Russian school”–Kastalsky, Gretchaninoff, Chesnokov and Rachmaninoff–and their followers, Sviridov, Martynov, and others.  Following the concerts will be a series of recording sessions that will result in a CD on the Harmonia Mundi label.

The 42-voice ensemble, which consists of top-level choral singers from all around the United States, brings an unprecedented level of focus to the Russian Orthodox choral repertoire. Four years ago, the group performed Rachmaninoff’s monumental All-Night Vigil, a work that has garnered much attention in the last 20 years. Having done the Vigil, conductor Craig Hella Johnson asked, as do many of his colleagues, “What else is there in the Russian choral repertoire?” This program is one response to that question.

Although many Russian composers, among them, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexandre Gretchaninoff, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Pavel Chesnokov, wrote more or less complete settings of the Divine Liturgy, on a typical Sunday in parishes of the Russian tradition one is not likely to hear the works of a just one composer. The practice, rather, is to sing an eclectic mix of settings by various composers. This was the approach used to build the program performed by Conspirare: the First Antiphon by Ippolitov-Ivanov, “Only begotten Son” by Gretchaninoff, a Cherubic Hymn by Chesnokov, “A Mercy of Peace” by Kastalsky, and so forth. In addition, it was decided to add propers for the feast of the Nativity of Christ, including settings by Sviridov, Kastalsky, and Ilyashenko, among others. The result was a stellar lineup of extraordinarily rich and beautiful sacred choral music—a Divine Liturgy similar to one that might have been heard in a Russian cathedral in the first or second decade of the twentieth century.

Interestingly, much of this music remains unknown and seldom performed in Russia, the result, no doubt, of nearly 75 years of Communist rule, during which the continuity and the tradition of the “new Russian choral school” that had sprung up around the Moscow Synodal School and its choir was wrenchingly interrupted for several generations. Several works on this program are North American (and perhaps world-wide) premieres, brought to life some hundred years after their composition. (All the works in the program are published by Musica Russica.)

How do non-Orthodox American singers (many of whom are conductors, educators, and church musicians in their own right) and audiences respond to this music? With extraordinary enthusiasm and appreciation! For many, it is their first contact with Orthodoxy—its theology, its hymnography, and its enduring emphasis on divine beauty. They recognize that this music is uncompromising in its spiritual depth, its genuineness of expression, its reflection of the highest human creative impulses. As singers, they discover that performing this music requires not only vocal prowess, but also a serious heartfelt commitment, an inner giving of oneself, which, in turn, transforms the giver. Audiences, in turn, recognize that they are experiencing something that speaks directly to the heart, to the innermost part of one’s being, as they are touched by something truly lofty and holy. Inevitably, they leave the concert asking the question, “What else is there like this?”

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