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Two New York choruses collaborate to perform Russian masterpiece
by Mimi S. Daitz for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 30, 2010

Alfred SchnittkeThe Canticum Novum Singers and The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York are joining forces to present one of the great a cappella works of the late 20th-century choral repertoire, Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Choir. The Schnittke Concerto, coming out of a tradition of Russian choral concerti, is the major work in the concert entitled "Sacred Music in the Soviet Era," to be presented on Saturday, May 15 at 8:00 PM at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, 552 West End Avenue at 87th Street, and on Sunday, May 16 at 3:00 PM, at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church at 73rd Street. Harold Rosenbaum, the conductor of The Canticum Novum Singers, will lead the Schnittke Concerto at the Saturday performance; Nikolai Kachanov, director of The Russian Chamber Chorus, will conduct it at the Sunday concert.

Written in 1984-85, the Concerto for Choir was premiered in 1986 at Moscow's Pushkin Museum. Schnittke's text came from The Book of Lamentations by the Armenian monk Grigor Narekatsi (951-1003), which was translated into Russian by Naum Grebnev. The 40-minute work is divided into four movements, which, according to Russian musicologist Dmitri Smirnov, "reflect the four different subdivisions and themes of Narekatsi's chapter: (I) the rapturous praise and appeal to God; (II) the list of those whom the lamentations might be expected to reach; (III) the hope of redemption and deliverance for those who will understand the essence of these words and for the poet himself who wrote them; (IV) the humble prayer asking God to complete these songs and give them a healing power."

Schnittke's setting of this text is for a mixed-voice chorus, with divisi parts sometimes written for sixteen individual lines. Several soprano, alto and tenor solo voices are integrated into the choral sound, whose range is just short of four octaves (D below the bass clef up to high C). In rehearsal, Nikolai Kachanov explained to the singers that from the many musical styles used by Schnittke there are several elements that are essential to bring out: half-tone melodies having an "Eastern," lamento style; vertical constructions, some strongly accented, like the columns of Greek temples, which portray the Almighty; and quieter melodies as in the sound of Russian Orthodox Church prayers.

The first half of the concert presents other works also demonstrating that, despite the anti-religious policies, composers in the Soviet republics found powerful ways to express their spirituality. Much of this sacred music was not performed until the end of the Iron Curtain. CNS will perform music by Askold Murov, Arvo Pärt, and Nicholas Reeves--whose In Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich will receive its world premiere on May 8. RCCNY presents works of Yuri Yukechev, Alfred Schnittke (Three Sacred Hymns) and Nikolai Golovanov. The last of these composers was the director of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater in the 1940s and '50s. His prestigious position made it especially important for him to hide his sacred scores; he had no hope of ever hearing them performed. RCCNY will perform the New York premiere of Golovanov's Plam'en'em L'ubve (Flame of Love).

Each chorus brings to this concert its special talents and musical experience. The Canticum Novum Singers was founded in 1973 by Harold Rosenbaum, recipient of the 2008 Laurel Leaf Award from the American Composers Alliance. This fine  group is especially known for its stylistic versatility and expressive singing of contemporary music. The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, founded in 1984 by Nikolai Kachanov, is America's preeminent Russian chorus. Its repertoire spans from ancient znamenny chant through the various styles of Russian classical and folk music.

Tickets are $20; students/seniors $15. For further information, visit www.canticumnovum.org or www.rccny.org.

Mimi S. Daitz, a choral conductor and musicologist, currently sings with RCCNY.

Content Contact: Mimi S. Daitz.
Revision Date: September 27, 2010.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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