Arstlandia hosts a Q&A with From Darkness To Light guest conductor Ivan Moody and includes this preview of the performance:
This coming weekend, May 16 and 17, classical choir Cappella Romana will bring star composer and conductor Ivan Moody to Portland to conduct From Darkness to Light, an intense program featuring the rarely-performed Choir Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Diptych by Ukrainian composer Galina Grigorjeva, and his own work Anastasis on Eastertide texts in Greek and English…or that’s one way to describe Cappella Romana’s upcoming performance. The LA Times has another perspective of Moody’s music, calliing it “like jeweled light flooding the space.” How is it that early choral music that’s so academic to read about, is so visceral and so emotional to actually hear? After spending the afternoon enveloped in Ivan Moody’s transcendent SoundCloud, Artslandia asked Moody to shed some light on his musical process and philosophy. Here’s what he said:
New York Times critic James R. Oestreich shared that he’d been listening to our Maximilian Steinberg: Passion Week recording in the ArtsBeat “Classical Playlist”:
“‘Passion Week’…is on a scale with the great sacred works of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, though in a slightly more advanced idiom, and is quite simply beautiful.” —James R. Oestreich, The New York Times
The From Darkness to Light programme is a journey in more than one sense. Firstly, it takes us from spiritual darkness (the condition which is cured, according to Orthodox Christian tradition, by metanoia, a change of heart) to light, the radiance of the Resurrection of Christ, by which mankind is made new. Secondly, it takes us from Soviet Russia back to Tsarist Russia, forward to present-day Ukraine, and, so to speak, sideways to Western Europe.
We begin the journey, then, in the middle, with Alfred Schnittke’s Stikhi pokayanie. The suppression in the Soviet Union of any manifestation of religious belief, especially after the dismissal of the relatively tolerant, and highly cultured, commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky in 1929 from NARKOMPROS, the People’s Commissariat of Public Education, had also cut artists off from a significant part of the artistic heritage of their native country. A revelation such as that afforded painters by the great 1913 exhibition held in Moscow of “Ancient Russian Painting,” and, indeed, the lifelong enthusiasm for icons of Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), and its corresponding influence on Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), was therefore impossible. In his book La musique du XXe siècle en Russie, Frans C. Lemaire traces the trajectory of attempted spiritual extinguishing of Russia, beginning with the première of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (“Vespers) and working through the survival of a religious sense, even in the disguised religiosity of cantatas and other works glorifying Lenin, a reinvention of that part of their heritage to which composers could not refer if it had the slightest religious overtone. As we now know, the trajectory of spiritual extinction ended in failure. There was a renaissance of music that could transmit the sacred, which Lemaire described as composers “rediscovering the right to the spiritual ‘unreality’ which had been taken from them in the name of socialist realism.” The fact that works overtly based on spiritual texts, such as Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Choir and Rodion Shchedrin’s Stikhira, could not only be written in the late 1980s, but performed and even recorded, was the clearest possible indication of the resurgence of this “spiritual unreality.” [N.B. Shchedrin’s 1988 Sealed Angel was performed in the Northwest last month by the Oregon Repertory Singers.]
Schnittke is an extraordinarily interesting figure. Firstly, in that he was, like his compatriots and colleagues Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, an explorer, interested in officially unacceptable innovations from the West, and quite capable of employing them while at the same time parodying the official line. The Symphony no. 1 (1972), whose enormously and scandalously successful première took place, two years after it was written, in the closed town of Gorky – now once again Nizhny-Novgorod – provides a blatant example of this; so blatant, in fact, that the work was performed only once more in the next ten years. Its Moscow première took place more than twelve years later.
Secondly, as imbued as a great deal of Schnittke’s music may in retrospect seem to be with Orthodox spirituality and culture, he was of Jewish descent and was in fact a Roman Catholic (a family circumstance deriving, apparently, from French ancestry before the 16th century); he was only baptized into the Catholic Church in 1980, in Vienna, and, though a Catholic, he was profoundly interested in the spiritual and artistic traditions of Orthodoxy. Schnittke himself was quite clear about the ambiguities inherent in his own personality:
“Although I don’t have any Russian blood, I am tied to Russia, having spent all my life there. On the other hand, much of what I’ve written is somehow related to German music and to the logic which comes out of being German, although I did not specifically want this… Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia, I can speak and write Russian far better than German. But I am not Russian… My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages – but I look like a typical Jew.”
His search for religious and philosophical meaning had led him to a deep, indeed obsessive, interest in the theme of Faust, which lasted from 1959 to 1994, when his opera on the subject was finally written, and he had also investigated cabbalism and the I Ching before deciding to be baptized. This confluence of cultures made Schnittke peculiarly aware of the power of vocabulary and its context, something very obviously apparent in his use of “polystylism,” in which the structural or surface quotation of particular musical vocabularies could serve as either an alienating or an integrating factor; his Symphony no. 1 is an outstanding example of the latter.
The importance of the theme of repentance to Schnittke is shown by his composition in 1987 of Stikhi pokayanie (“Penitential Psalms” is the usual, but inaccurate, English translation, thus the use by Cappella Romana of “Verses of Repentance”; the German “Bußverse” is closer) for unaccompanied mixed choir, again a large-scale composition, lasting some 45 minutes, even longer than the Concerto. The work, written, like Rodion Shchedrin’s Stikhira, for the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’, was inspired by a collection of early Russian literature, which includes these spiritual lines or poems by anonymous monks, and through thematically these texts might seem to offer much less variety than those of St. Gregory Narekatsi, whose words Schnittke set in his Choir Concerto, the music employs essentially the same techniques and is characterized by the same degree of technical virtuosity as the Concerto.
In both works there are very strong echoes of the Russian sacred repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century; this imparts a sense of belonging to a tradition which in turn provides much of the music’s strength. The typically Russian treatment of long, chant-like melodic lines revolving around essentially homophonic textures is what creates this impression above all. Following Bartók’s idea of “imaginary folklore,” the Serbian musicologist and conductor Bogdan Djaković has described Schnittke’s technique in these works as the use of “imaginary church folklore,” after the practice of a number of composers the new Russian choral school of the late 19th century, composing original choral music stylistically consonant with liturgical tradition but with no direct quotation of chant. Schnittke goes much further than his forebears, however, in his use of modernist techniques – in particular polytonality and clusters – which would never have been considered suitable for ecclesiastical use but which are part of his personal response to these remarkable texts. This response was nevertheless deeply informed by the composer’s knowledge and love of Russian choral music of the past, as is abundantly clear when, as happens at several points during the sequence, the clouds part and the dense, questing character of Schnittke’s music gives way to a sunlit tonal apotheosis.
That music of the past included, of course, the work of Rachmaninov, whose Vigil (“Vespers,” 1915) has now become so well-loved in the West. With that work, the composer sealed his relationship with liturgical composition: he had said everything he was to say in that field. In addition, it was, to quote the musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker, “the terminus for the New Trend, or for any elaborate Orthodox liturgical music.” Indeed, the “New Trend” would only be taken up again after the collapse of the Soviet Union – Schnittke’s Stikhi pokayanie and Shchedrin’s Stikhira were special exceptions insofar as the millennium of the Christianization of Russia could not be ignored. But the Rachmaninov’s masterly use of the choir in his Vigil did not come from nowhere; he had composed a setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom five years earlier, a work that was not favourably received, and, much earlier, in 1893, the sacred concerto we hear tonight, “O Mother of God, vigilantly praying.”
The choral concerto is a genre peculiar to the Russian Empire; in Russian and Ukrainian churches, from the mid-17th century onwards, a multi-sectional work, the texts taken from psalms or liturgical sources, for unaccompanied voices, was frequently sung during the communion. Rachmaninov’s concerto, written for and first performed by the Moscow Synodal Choir, sets a slightly varied version of the kontakion for the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Though its style is far removed from the later, frequently virtuosic, “choral orchestration” of the Vigil, it is nevertheless a magnificent achievement, an intensely personal and expressive setting of the text that makes a unique contribution to this genre.
The music of the Ukrainian Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962) has been described as “minimalist,” but as usual the label itself is minimal, serving as a mischaracterization rather than an accurate descriptor of her music. Originally a pupil of Yuri Falik at St. Petersburg Conservatory, she later moved to Tallinn and worked with Lepo Sumera – who has been characterized as the creator of Estonian minimalism – at the Estonian Academy of Music. She has been particularly concerned to situate her music in relation to her spiritual heritage, especially in the form of overt but distanced reference to Russo-Ukrainian liturgical music. This occurs in Kant, or Cantus, which makes specific reference to the paraliturgical genre of the kant cultivated in a number of Slavic lands during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, Svyatki is a six-movement choir concerto written between 1995 and 2004 setting popular devotional texts, Na iskhod (“On Leaving”), written originally in 1999, and setting of parts of the Office of the Parting of the Soul from the Body, and in Diptych, written for the Ensemble Credo, and first performed by them in the Kaarli Church in Tallinn in December 2011.
The composer sees the work as a reflection on death. The first movement is a setting in Slavonic of the Song of Symeon (Nunc dimittis), but it is shot through with sadness – it is a song of farewell. The second brings consolation, and sets words from the ninth ode of the Canon of Matins for Holy Saturday, a dialogue between Christ and His Mother in which the joy of the Resurrection is anticipated and which flowers into an increasingly elaborate, polyphonic texture that is deliberately reminiscent of the remarkable polyphony of the Russian Middle Ages.
Resurrection is also the theme of my work Anástasis, and the title is in fact the Greek word for “Resurrection.” In this piece I have been concerned with the very human sense of expectation of the Resurrection of Christ – illustrated particularly in the repeated calls of “Anásta” (“Rise!”) but also with that expectation’s clear fulfilment – the reply is “Anésti” (“He is risen”). It sets texts taken from the services of Holy Saturday from the Orthodox Byzantine rite, in English and Greek, portraying both the wavering of Christ’s own disciples and, later, their absolute conviction of the fact of His Resurrection. I have been concerned in many of my works with the moment of the Resurrection, a moment of blazing light which transcends both conventional religious belief and practice and scientific rigour; every time I confront it, I am struck by wonder – wonder at the way the physical and the metaphysical can become so intertwined. The human, scientific, and ecological implications of this moment are manifold… it seems to me that, if it were otherwise, there would be no point in writing a work concerned with this theme.
Anástasis was commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble and Singer Pur, and given its first performance by them in Regensburg Cathedral in 2007. I took advantage of this extraordinary mixture (the presence of four solo tenors, for example) to create some sounds and textures that would otherwise not have occurred to me. These performances by Cappella Romana are the first by a full choir.
One hour prior to each concert, guest director Ivan Moody will present a brief talk on the program, and will be available to sign his recent book and CDs (a selection will be available for purchase).
Rev. Dr. Ivan Moody is one of the world’s leading scholars on Russian composer Alfred Schnittke and is the author of the article on Schnittke in the New Grove Dictionary of Music. He also serves as president of the International Society of Orthodox Church Music.
Guest Director Ivan Moody adds Rachmaninoff’s Concerto for Choir to the program From Darkness to Light!
“Rachmaninoff’s wonderful choir concerto is the perfect work to anchor this program. His music was both a culmination of a great tradition and a starting point for so much of what followed in Russia. In many ways it is, like his famous ‘Vespers’, the starting point for the contemporary Slavic works in this concert. In addition, the music is absolutely sublime!” —Ivan Moody
“This ‘premiere in modern times’, revivified through extensive research, is true tingle-factor stuff: an austere, inexorable, mesmerising Crucifixion liturgy told in the 8th-and-9th-century Byzantine chant that once resounded within Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, leading the listener through Christ’s final earthly journey. A lavishly spacious recording in acoustics mystically evocative of the original blooms around this super-resonant blend of voices, including Grecophone singers and plangent note-bending solo singing from Stelios Kontakiotis—compellingly convincing and cathartic.” —Rebecca Tavener, Choir & Organ Magazine
AllMusic critic James Manheim has a new review for our Maximilian Steinberg: Passion Week recording:
“The whole story is told in the excellent notes here, but the music itself is the main attraction. The nearest comparison would be Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, but it is far from a knock-off. Steinberg makes less use of the characteristic Russian bass voices, but his settings, combining solo and choral sections in a variety of configurations, are equally varied and have a certain mystical streak that’s very appealing. The work is nicely balanced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chant Arrangements for Holy Week, another example of the intriguing flowering of Russian sacred music that occurred before and around the advent of Communism. Recommended, with something of a lost treasure of Russian choral music.” —James Manheim, AllMusic
“It would be difficult to find a group more steeped in serious musicological research than Cappella Romana, and their discs of music of the Byzantine tradition (mainly medieval chant but also modern, related works) have, as a result, a general sense of quiet elegance and authority. Their recording of music for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is no exception, and as such is one that not only stands up as a sound world of unique beauty but as a reference for composers writing into their music an influence that is constantly expanding and changing. … it is hard not feel that the work this group is doing is not only presenting music that has a veneer of inaccessibility in a way that releases its particular beauty but also allowing it to bloom and continue to evolve.” —Caroline Gill, Gramophone
MusicWeb International critic Garry Higginson recalls his own Holy Week in Jerusalem experience while listening to Cappella Romana’s new Good Friday in Jerusalem recording:
“Jerusalem was filled with people of all nations, as befits a city of pilgrimage. Droves of superior-looking tourists who had come to gaze curiously on the rites of the Eastern Church were queerly mixed with humble Eastern Christians. That was in 1984 when I was there for what turned out to be a richly memorable week.
I was told that if I wanted to witness the Greek ceremony of the feet washing I should rise at 5.00 am and join the crowds for the 8:00 am start that was eventually 9.00 am. It was here that I first heard what we could call Byzantine chant. The singing was steadily and rhythmically paced to match the slow procession of Copts and Egyptian Christians walking out of the church of the Holy Sepulchre where they had been chanting and praying for an hour before. It is quite unlike the free and liquid movement of Gregorian chant — utterly unforgettable. The church bell, which rang later, had a haunting rhythm and tone quality, which I can still recall.
Listening to this CD especially during this Holy Week (2015) has brought it all back and the helpful diagram of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in the booklet reminds me of the astounding church which dominates the area. …” —Gary Higginson, MusicWeb International