Most people think of Peter Tchaikovsky only as a composer of orchestral works, and St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church as little more than a controversial name in the news. But to take such narrow views is, in both cases, to miss much that is beautiful.
The St. Louis Chamber Chorus' fourth concert in the 2009-2010 season is a celebration of Slavic heritage, starting with the music. The headline work is Tchaikovsky's gorgeous, tuneful setting of the Russian Orthodox service of Vespers, receiving, surprisingly, its St. Louis premiere, and there are a cappella works by other Russian and Polish composers. Those include Yakov Gubanov, a one-time student of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of whose offerings is a world premiere.
Artistic director Philip Barnes tries to match the ensemble's venues to the music they sing, and that made St. Stan's a natural. The Chamber Chorus sang two concerts of mostly Polish music there in the 1990s.
"It's a beautiful building," Barnes, who is on sabbatical in England, says via e-mail. "The domes inside allow the sound to ring, but it's not too resonant."
Being out of the country meant that Barnes could bring in a conductor with a real feel for Russian choral music.
Barnes says that he's had regular requests for Russian repertoire but that he's not that comfortable with it. Russian choruses are famous for their moving, heartfelt performances, which don't always adhere to all of the conventional Western musical niceties.
"I believe (Russian music) needs a Janus-like approach of being precise with some details while allowing for some inaccuracy in others," Barnes says. "This is in order to realize the spirit of the music, which I find a curious mixture of the emotional and dispassionate. I suspect my own sensitivities would render the performance either too nit-picking or — at the other extreme — turgid."
Fortunately, Washington University music professor John Stewart has a real feel for that repertoire and considerable experience in directing it. He will conduct the Vespers, and his choir will join the Chamber Chorus to provide the numbers needed to give the music its due. Each choir will also perform on its own.
SLCC assistant director Mary Chapman is preparing the music and will conduct the Chamber Chorus in the rest of their program. Between movements of the Vespers, there will be music by a pair of 17th century Polish composers, Bartlomiej Pekiel and Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki, along with Igor Stravinsky and contemporary Russian composers Denis Mickiewicz (b. 1934) and Gubanov (b. 1954).
In preparing for the concert, Chapman sought out a Russian language coach, Mikhail Palatnik, senior lecturer in Russian at Washington University, who advised her and came to a rehearsal.
The next task was to get that famed Russian Orthodox choir sound, with the rich, deep tones of sub-basement basses that give the unaccompanied music its foundation.
"I told the basses I wanted them to sing down an octave, but I don't want a wimpy sound," Chapman says. "They looked at me and at each other, and said, 'OK.'"
The presence of an alternate bass who has low notes to burn encouraged the others to sing out. Chapman is confident that they'll have the right quality.
Along with the Vespers, Chapman thinks audiences will find the two Gubanov pieces, both in Latin, most impressive. Gubanov, who has his master's degree from the Moscow Conservatory, is a professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; he uses what Barnes calls "ethereal, tonal language" for his religious music. He'll be in St. Louis for the concert.
Chapman says the first work, "Benedicta et Venerabilis," "is an intimate piece." The other, the afternoon's world premiere, "Psalmus XXVIII," was written in 2005 and calls for up to 16 parts. It took her some time to figure out a way into the work.
"It's very passionate, very spiritual and atmospheric," she says. "As Yakov wrote it, he was envisioning the early Christians, people who were meeting secretly, persecuted people who were willing to die if they were caught. It's an affirmation of belief, and a potentially powerful piece."
Gubanov wrote Chapman a note to explain his take on "Psalmus," a note that says a lot about how he thinks of it: