Yesterday afternoon the First Unitarian Universalist Church hosted the first of a series of four concerts being offered during the Third International Russian Choral Music Festival, the first festival in the series to be held outside Boston. Six different performing groups presented a program of Russian liturgical and folk music entitled Heaven and Earth: The Roots of Russian Choral Music. The event concluded with four of the groups joining forces for the West Coast premiere of “Life and Death” by Moscow composer Valery Kalistratov.
There was considerable breadth to this concert, which lasted about two and one half hours (including intermission). That breadth was evident not only in the types of music but also levels of quality in how it was both created and executed. To an ear (like mine) that is not very well acquainted with the repertoire, performance was most convincing when it drew upon traditional liturgical sources. This was at its best in eight settings by Mikhail S. Konstantinoff sung by the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Cathedral Chorus under Director Vladimir Krassovsky. The choir brought rich sonorities to music that had its roots in plainchant. While most of this was unfamiliar, the final setting of “Christ is Risen” is the one that Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov appropriated in his “Russian Easter Festival Overture.”
Less convincing were similar settings by Pavel Chesnokov, who predated Konstantinoff by about a quarter century. (Both were active in the first half of the twentieth century.) There seemed to be more breadth in Konstantinoff’s settings. On the other hand the Chesnokov selections may have been given a weaker account by the Burlingame-based Church of All Russian Saints Choir under Director Andrei Roudenko. Yet another factor is that Chesnokov may have suffered only for being performed after Konstantinoff, rather than through any shortcomings in the music itself.
Far weaker were the secular selections. Most of these were performed by Kostroma and Kitka, both groups seeming to give more attention to costuming than to either the music itself or the spirit behind that music. The performances involved a generous amount of smiling and even a bit of dancing from Kostroma. However, there was no sense of the settings in which these songs were sung, giving the impression that they were motivated more by study than by any more fundamental social practices. I was particularly put off by a Kitka selection described as a “Lubavitcher Hasidic anthem.” Even the choice of the noun “anthem” for anything Hasidic was pure goyish mishegoss; and their execution of a text concerned only with alcohol-induced ecstasy was depressingly pallid. Equally ineffective was the interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s “Ovsen,” the second of his Four Russian Peasant Songs for equal voices, as performed by the Slavyanka Women Singers under Director Irina Shachneva.
The Kalistratov premiere that concluded the program was particularly effective in its brevity, given the long-winded nature of so much of the program. I was also struck by the composer’s adaptation of Johann Crüger’s hymn setting of “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, my joy). This made for a particularly moving evocation of Johann Sebastian Bach, presenting the music as a rather unique confrontation between past and present.