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An Interview with Nikolai Kachanov
Artistic Director, Russian Chamber Chorus of New York
by Rebecca Stanton for Vocal Area Network
Posted January 13, 2003

Nikolai Kachanov"Music and Dictatorship: Russia Under Stalin" is a three-concert series and symposium to be presented by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy at Carnegie Hall Thursday, February 20 through Sunday, February 23. This series, of quintessentially Russian magnitude, requires assembling a powerful chorus for several of the programmed works. Maestro Ashkenazy has invited The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, directed by Nikolai Kachanov, and the Dessoff Choirs, directed by Kent Tritle, to fulfill this role with the Czech Philharmonic.

Rebecca Stanton spoke with Nikolai Kachanov, Artistic Director of the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, for a perspective on this extraordinary (not to mention chillingly timely) series of concerts.

Vocal Area Network: Tell us about the repertoire chosen by Maestro Ashkenazy for this series, and the special challenges associated with preparing the chorus for this material.

Nikolai Kachanov: First of all, the entire plan for the four-day, three-concert and symposium cycle is masterful. Beginning on Thursday evening with Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible providing a historical perspective, building up to the intensity of Shostakovich's Babi Yar on Saturday, followed by his violin Concerto No. 1 on Sunday, the series of concerts taken as a whole shows the possibilities and role of music and artists working in conditions of oppression. The cumulative impact of the series goes beyond the individual presentation of several great pieces of music.

The specific repertoire involving the chorus presents many challenges because it combines a wide variety of topics and styles. First is the genre of film music, represented by Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible and Fall of Berlin by Shostakovich. These pieces partake of the cantata-oratorio genre, which in the Russian tradition is close to the genre of operatic scenes--all the more so in this case, since we are talking about film music. It means the vocal sound must be particularly expressive; the singers must be trained to give the supported, mixed, even sound known as bel canto. The challenges for the chorus include the variety of roles they must play to convey the different scenes and situations associated with the music: from the boyars in the time of Ivan the Terrible to party officials of the 20th Century. Speaking about how close this music is to opera, I have to stress that an element of acting is very important to the performance. In Russian repertoire, the choir typically plays an expressive, rather than a decorative, role.

VAN: With such multiple challenges facing the chorus, what objectives did you prioritize?

NK: The first priority must be to obtain a true Russian legato singing. This topic can be quite challenging for western singers who have grown up with a more Baroque, slightly separated style of singing. The basis of Russian choral sound is an absolutely sustained legato sound.

The second priority is that everything must be based on a big well-supported sound. In western music the sound frequently becomes lighter in the higher range. In Russian music it is just the opposite: the sound must become broader, more expansive, in the upper range. These two items--legato and big sound--are fundamental to correct performance of this repertoire.

Enunciation is also an element of expression--the words are very important. We train non-Russian singers in correct pronunciation and pay special attention to accents and marcato passages.

VAN: I understand that you are originally from the Altai region of Siberia, and are now an American citizen and a New Yorker. I imagine that many members of the Chorus, if not originally from Russia, are also of Russian extraction. It must be especially difficult for you and your singers to perform works such as Prokofiev's Hail to Stalin and Shostakovich's Fall of Berlin music, evoking memories of such tragic times.

NK: Now you come to the crux of the matter. I absolutely respect differing opinions on this subject, but I believe that art is healing, and in this concrete instance it is important that we understand what Shostakovich, the artist, is talking about, and how. To me the Fall of Berlin music is like a photograph: Shostakovich does not express a personal opinion about Stalin, but presents something like the "objective" product of the camera's lens. It is a historical document not about Stalin, but about a historical event to which Shostakovich was a witness. At that time, it's true, a majority of Soviet people were reckoned to see in Stalin a great leader and went to die for him in battle. The fall of Berlin was the culmination of a great drama; this long-awaited victory was personified in the minds of the people by the image of their victorious leader. The whole history of Stalin is a story about the creation of a cult, created not so much by Stalin himself as by those around him, in which part of the general population also participated, fanatically. The brilliant film Ivan the Terrible, with Prokofiev's extraordinary music, exemplifies one occasion when history was used as propaganda, whereby an explicit parallel was drawn between Ivan--one of the great creators and defenders of ancient Rus--and Stalin.

Today we know that certain politically motivated "artists" vied with one another in "high cultural spheres" to be first in service to "the great" Stalin. To the credit of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, they never took part in this competition, but they too lived under the pressure of fearsome and mortally dangerous circumstances. (It is known, for example, what a malicious role Stalin played in Prokofiev's personal and family life.) These artists could not avoid coming under the scrutiny of Stalin himself, because they were such bright and well-known composers of their time. Did Stalin expect glorification of himself from these composers? Of course he did. The study of such works as Shostakovich's Fall of Berlin and Prokofiev's Hail to Stalin allows us to apprehend the human, social psychology of the past, in the hope that we might overcome the scary aspects of human nature that produced this blind generation, the uncritical acceptance of Soviet leaders, and so on. That's why it is important for us to study the past not just through the distancing lens of history, but through art as well, which gives us a deeper, more psychological understanding.

By studying these scores, we gain access to the inner "kitchen" of their creation: for example, the funny disproportion of Prokofiev's Hail to Stalin; the mechanically repeated scales that remind us of a piano student's exercises; the inconceivably uninspired, unpoetic text (was it obtuseness or audacity?)--all these hint at a carefully masked irony. You know, Stalin and Prokofiev died on the same day--March 5, 1953. The composer's death went practically unnoticed--the country mourned Stalin so! Today we celebrate the genius of Sergey Prokofiev; this is how history restores justice, and again, it is through art that we recognize the truth!

So I don't think that anyone today can seriously glorify Stalin and achieve political success that way; on the contrary, I think it is healthy that we can today look the events of the past straight in the eye. For me it symbolizes liberation from the hypnotic nightmare of that personality.

On the other hand, I must point out that the program is very successfully balanced by two other very special pieces for chorus and orchestra by Shostakovich: the Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar"), and the satirical one-act opera, Antiformalist Rayok. The appearance of Symphony No. 13 was like an explosion; the men's chorus is set to a poem, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which was very daring for that time because he shouted about something everyone else preferred to forget, suppress or ignore: the murder of tens of thousands of Jews in the place called "Babi Yar," in Kiev, during the fascist occupation of Ukraine in World War II. It is said that on September 28, 1941, leaflets in three languages--Russian, Ukrainian and German--and without a date or signature were plastered about the whole city. They were issued by the printing office of the 6th German Army. All Jews of Kiev and its surroundings were ordered to gather early September 29 on the corner of Melnikov and Degtyarevskaya Streets with their documents, valuables, clothes and so on. Absence was punishable by death. But those who gathered were made to take off their clothes and walk, in groups of two  or three, into the complex of ravines called Babi Yar, where they were shot. Between September 1941 and October 1943, at least 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar.

In a composition of such dramatic power, we do not expect charming melodies and refined harmonies; it is painted in hues of black and gray, and belongs in a special wing of the art gallery. We meet the exact opposite of this composition in Antiformalist Rayok, a one-act opera which is an extraordinarily daring musical satire on the absurd structures of the Soviet bureaucracy. The word "rayok" in Russian means "little paradise," used ironically here in reference to the "heaven" attained by these buffoonish Party officials for their service to Stalin. It also evokes the title of an earlier Russian musical satire, written in 1870: Mussorgsky's Rayok (or The Puppet Show), which ridiculed members of the musical establishment ("puppets") who had criticized Mussorgsky and the "Mighty Handful" composers. Mussorsgky's Rayok satirizes the relationship between the artist and the authorities, using direct musical and verbal quotations. Shostakovich's Antiformalist Rayok continues this tradition but on a much bigger scale: here it becomes a political satire. [Translator's note: In English, "Rayok" is often translated as "the gods," meaning both something heavenly and the cheap seats at the theater in which hecklers used to sit.]

One of the "inspirations" for Shostakovich's Rayok was the 1948 meeting of the musical establishment of the Communist Party, at which Zhdanov denounced Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khatchaturian as being too "cosmopolitan" and "formalist." Zhdanov was a member of the Politburo and the architect of a wave of government denouncements, censorship, and terror leveled against any artist who struck him as too "Western" or "un-Soviet." You could be annihilated just for creating a work that did not suit the tastes of Stalin and his infernal party apparatus. The text of Rayok (which Shostakovich also wrote) is an assemblage of intentionally fatuous platitudes, which these politicians recite in their conference speeches. The accompaniment is built from musical symbols through which can easily be perceived the caricatures of the main party figures of the time (including Stalin). It is a work of absolute genius, which rewards detailed study. Obviously, during Shostakovich's lifetime it could not be published, and we must marvel at his bravery even in daring to keep a copy for himself.

VAN: On another note entirely, the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York is now in its eighteenth season, and has received some marvelous reviews in The New York Times and other New York metropolitan area newspapers. Indeed, James Oestreich of The Times ranked your CD of Tchaikovsky's Liturgy as #4 on his list of the ten best recordings in 2001. And yet, in a telling comment, Mr. Oestreich referred to the chorus as "an underexposed gem of the NY music scene." Does the name "Russian Chamber Chorus of New York" result in some potential confusion with audience members and potential choristers regarding what world the chorus belongs to?

NK: It may cause some confusion, but in fact, the name--connecting "Russian" and "New York"--is not an accident: it reflects my dream to connect the American style and tradition of choral performance, its rhythm and intonational precision, with the expressiveness of the Russian choral repertoire and performance tradition. I am deeply drawn to the idea of furthering the mutual inspiration and collaboration of these two cultures. For example, in May-June of 2003, we will perform early Russian and Western music. We also perform American and world premieres of music by living composers in, or from, Russia. Last year we premiered a work, New York Mass, written for the people of New York after 9/11 by Efrem Podgaits, a Moscow composer.

RCCNY is a new phenomenon in the life of American culture. There was a time when Americans only read Chekhov, and now they perform him; Chekhov has found a new homeland in America. I think that the same process is happening in American choral life, especially in New York. I remember about 20 years ago, when we performed Rachmaninoff's Liturgy and early Russian liturgical music, that music did not seem "Russian" to our audience because their main exposure to Russian music was through the Red Army Chorus, or sentimental music and "gypsy" songs like Ochi Chorniye. Today the quantity and quality of performances of Russian choral music have reached a very high level. The Russian choral repertoire is becoming a part of American choral culture. Rachmaninoff's Vespers is performed frequently and helps Americans penetrate the mysteries of the so-called "Russian soul." RCCNY has worked hard to help this happen, and I am very proud to be a part of this process.

There is one more thing I would like to say, though perhaps it will seem a bit of a tangent. The works on the "Music and Dictatorship" program document the very worst period of the Soviet Union, a time when freedom of expression was utterly suppressed and even being suspected of incorrect thoughts could mean imprisonment and death. And yet, for many of us, there was still one avenue through which we could express ourselves: music. Music was our salvation.

On behalf of RCCNY, I would also like to say that we greatly appreciate the VAN website and the service it provides to the choral community, helping choral music bring people together.

[Editor's note: For details about these concerts, see the VAN Concert Calendar or visit Carnegie Hall.]

Rebecca Stanton is completing a doctorate in Russian literature at Columbia University and has published articles on Gogol, Babel and Dostoevsky. She has performed with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York for the past 12 years. This is her first article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Rebecca Stanton.
Revision Date: January 16, 2003.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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