Russian Chamber Chorus of New York offers settings of Shakespeare and Pushkin
by Karl Peterson for Vocal Area Network
Posted January 8, 2017

RCCNY--Shakespeare and PushkinIn seeking to create a choral narrative for the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York’s winter 2017 concert, maestro Nikolai Kachanov looks to two giants of world literature as inspiration for a concert entitled “Shakespeare and Pushkin in Choral Music.” William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) may have been separated by nearly two centuries, and their writing styles certainly reflect the times in which they lived. Nevertheless, they share certain traits, most notably that their works express the full breadth of human emotions and experience, from tragedy to humor, exultation to misery. The melancholy that can be found in both writer’s works is especially well-represented on this occasion.

For the Russian Chamber Chorus to look to Alexander Pushkin as a source for choral music settings makes a lot of sense. Pushkin is considered to be the greatest Russian poet, and from his lifetime to this day, Russian composers have drawn inspiration from his writings. Lovers of opera will no doubt recall, for example, Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, just a few of many great operas that have been based on Pushkin texts.

On the other hand, the importance that Shakespeare might have, say, to Russian culture may be harder to imagine. We can begin to see the connection if we keep in mind that it was Pushkin himself who was instrumental in bringing Shakespeare’s works to Russians, as one of the first generation of writers to translate Shakespeare into Russian. There is no doubt that working so closely with Shakespeare’s texts influenced Pushkin, in terms of his world-view and overall philosophy.

Working with musical settings of poems from both these literary luminaries has given the RCCNY the chance to appreciate the perhaps intangible kinship between these two geniuses. And they look forward to sharing this with their audience. First, there are the many shades of melancholy of Pushkin’s Winter Road, set by Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963). And the setting of three Pushkin poems by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) displays the poet’s romantic side as well as his dark sense of humor.

The third of those three poem settings is a bridge to the Three Shakespeare Songs by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). As in the Sviridov, the third setting here is in a quick triplet, with a mysterious, rather ambiguous ending. Vaughan Williams song settings take words that are spoken by sprites or fairies in Shakespeare’s plays and casts them in settings of rich harmonies, creating a mystical feeling.

Sonnet 53 by Estonian composer Evelin Seppar (b. 1986) is a bridge backward to the chorus’s Spring 2016 concert, when it sang music by composers from all three Baltic countries. Like much of the music from that concert, this piece is ethereal, inspired by the contrast between substance and shadow described in the first quatrain of the sonnet.

One could hardly imagine music that would sound as different from the Seppar sonnet as is Wedding is Great Juno’s Crown by American composer Frank Lewin (1925-2008). Lewin’s setting of this song from the play As You Like It is rich, tonal, quite straightforward. One might call it a modern homage to the English polyphony that was being written during Shakespeare’s lifetime. With its organ accompaniment to the six voice parts, it sounds just like the sort of music to begin a mid 20th-century wedding.

Thus far, we have spoken about settings treating the poets in their native languages – Shakespeare in English, Pushkin in Russian. And with good reason – both are notoriously difficult to translate into other tongues; it can be difficult even for modern English speakers to understand Shakespeare’s English. Nevertheless, for this concert, the chorus presents two substantial works that attempt to bridge the language gap. Poet-Prophet by Mikhail Zeiger (b. 1949) uses American poet Babette Deutsch’s translation of Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet” and frames it with verses from the biblical book of Isaiah, the text that inspired the original poem. Accompanied by both organ and piano, this is the most technically challenging of the pieces in this concert, a declamatory setting of great power.

Finally, the chorus will sing a world premiere (commissioned by Maestro Kachanov and the RCCNY) of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 by Yuri Yukechev (b. 1947). The Russian translation of the Shakespeare, created by linguist Alexander M. Finkel, is very faithful to the original text (a sonnet that readers will recall for its second line, “… in remembrance of things past…,” which became the title to Marcel Proust’s magnum opus À la recherche du temps perdu). However, this setting has tipped things in a decidedly Russian direction, as Mr. Yukechev’s usual mix of modern tonal effects and Russian romanticism brings out the melancholy qualities in Shakespeare’s sonnet.

This concert will be performed Thursday, January 12 at 7:30 PM and Saturday, January 14 at 4:00 PM at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 236 East 31st Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues), New York, NY. The chorus will be joined by Guy Brewer, organ, and Mikhail Zeiger, piano. Tickets are $25 at the door, $20 for seniors 65+ and $15 for students. For additional information, visit www.rccny.org or call (212) 928-1402.

Karl Peterson sings with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York. His writings appear on the Dairy Free Traveler blog and in Savoring Gotham, edited by Andrew F. Smith and published by Oxford University Press.