The concerts of the Sretensky Monastery Choir made our picks for October principally because we wanted to hear them sing Orthodox liturgical music. Anyone who went to their second concert, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Monday night, hoping to hear that repertory was, like me, disappointed to learn that this program, unlike the one at the Library of Congress over the weekend, was devoted exclusively to Russian folk and secular songs from the first half of the 20th century. In many ways it was a program meant for a Russian audience, who showed up in great numbers and by the end had not a dry eye among them. No translations of the Russian texts were available and at one point an invitation to the audience to sing along with one of the tunes ("Evening on the Roadstead," by Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi) was met with hearty participation from memory. The fervent nostalgia inspired by this music, much of it composed during the two world wars -- an era in which this sort of patriotic music was used to bash superior composers like Shostakovich over the head -- may trouble some listeners. The rumored connection between Archimandrite Tikhon, the abbot of the Sretensky Monastery, and Vladimir Putin is not likely to ease anyone's mind.
The sound of an all-male Russian chorus was not so long ago something that principally inspired fear. It is a full-throated sound, from the shrill shriek of the nasally placed high tenors down to the rumble of the lowest basses reaching notes near the edge of the capacity of human hearing -- rather than a well-rounded, beautiful one. One of its hallmarks is the use of staggered breathing that gives the impression of an endless music, with the complex sounds of the Russian language placed with precision and unity. The music was of various kinds -- tender love songs, comic riffs (with ear-piercing whistles accompanying it), somber evocations of the tragedies of war and the loneliness of soldiers -- but it was all cut from the same stylistic cloth, none of it all that sophisticated. Of the four soloists presented over the course of the evening, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, who has a burgeoning opera career after getting started with the Sretensky Monastery Choir, stood out for the broad caliber of his prominent, unnuanced voice. Tenor Alexey Tatarintsev, smaller in scope and slightly swallowed in tone, was strongest in soft, slow selections. Conductor Nikon Zhila led with one of the oddest vocabularies of gestures ever seen, and that is saying something for choral conductors, with an elaborately choreographed lead-up to a downbeat that was never quite clear.
Anne Midgette, Sretensky Monastery Choir at the Library of Congress (Washington Post, October 8)
Carl Schreck, Orthodox Official: God, Not State, Should Protect Believers’ Feelings (RIA Novosti, October 6)
Kathy Lally, Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery Choir visits D.C. (Washington Post, October 5)