Feb. 7, 2019

Vladimir Gorbik speaks about his GRAMMY-nominated album of Russian sacred music.

As the GRAMMY Awards, which will take place on February 10, draw near, Kommersant continues to introduce Russian applicants for this award. This year, among the nominees in the field of “Best Choral Performance” was an album of sacred choral music composed by Pavel Chesnokov. It was recorded by the male choir of the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music (PaTRAM) Institute under the direction of Vladimir Gorbik, director of the choir of the Moscow Representation Church of Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.

Russian sacred music is regularly present in GRAMMY-nominated albums, but this was the first time that an actual church choir from Russia found itself among the nominees. Maestro Vladimir Gorbik tells Sergey Khodnev about his work on the CD, orchestral and choral conducting, and the attraction of Chesnokov’s music for American audiences.

SK – Please tell us, what is PaTRAM? And how is it that you are one of the founders of this institute in America, while at the same time, as I understand it, you continue working in Moscow?

VG – Well, to begin with, I have been going to America frequently since 2012 to conduct master classes for their choirs, choir conductors, and singers. Our male choir of the Representation Church of Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra is well known there, and my experience as a conductor and choir director turned out to be in demand. I was even asked to found the new Metropolitan Male Choir in Howell, New Jersey, USA – so that it would be “like at the Representation Church.”

Recently, I have been working a lot on that. But PaTRAM is different. This institute started in 2013, when an American businessman came to visit me in Moscow; his name is Alexis Lukianov. He is the son of a priest and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. And so, he attended a service with us; then we got to talking, and he said to me: “Volodya, can you help me in teaching choir directors and church singers at a good level? Let's create an educational center in America.” It all started with this.

SK – So this is an educational institution?

VG – Yes, for singers and directors. The documents, infrastructure, and all of the organizational and logistical tasks were taken over by Alexis, and my area of responsibility was and is teaching, imparting my skills and knowledge.

SK – How does this work in an organizational sense?

VG – In PaTRAM, I am the head conductor of the male and mixed choirs and teacher of conducting. There are two main venues of education we offer. The main one is my full-time master classes that take place when I personally go to the States to teach there. The second venue comprises lessons given over Skype on subjects such as conducting, vocals, and ear training. For five years, we have provided a whole staff of teachers in these subjects. To be sure, a building with a PaTRAM sign on it does not exist; this is an Internet-based organization designed mainly for online education. And it is very interesting for many people – we have people from all over America, and not only America.

SK – And now you also have an orchestra in Moscow.

VG – That's right, The Capital Symphony Orchestra. We just recently had a regular concert in the Lesser Hall of the Moscow Conservatory – we played the Fourth, “Tragic” symphony of Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony Number One. But the orchestra also has a second line-up in America, in New York.

SK – What is it called?

VG – It is called the New York Branch of The Capital Symphony Orchestra. We managed to establish contacts with American performers from the best New York orchestras. So now both here and there we have real core groups – a permanent membership that rehearses on a more or less regular basis, and there are people who are invited to perform with the orchestras from without. This is similar to how the male choir of the Representation Church works – there is a core group that usually sings in the regular church services but, let’s say, for concerts or recordings, I can always call my students to supplement the choir.

SK – Tell me, why do you, a choir conductor, have this work with the orchestra?

VG – It was a long time before I ever thought that I would be a choir conductor. The idea never came to my mind!

I was raised as a classical musician. In music school, I played three instruments; in the Army, I played the alto horn, the trumpet, and drums in the military orchestra. The dream of becoming a symphony orchestra conductor is something I have had since the age of 14.

And from the very first courses at the Moscow Conservatory, of course, I wanted to do this first and foremost. But at some point, Vladyka Longin (Korchagin; presently Metropolitan of Saratov & Volsk, in 1992-2003 rector of the Moscow Representation Church of the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra – Kommersant). He was my confessor, and he asked me not to focus on orchestral activity and said: “We must create a male choir of the monastery.” So in the 1990s, our choir was formed, and this was, of course, a tremendous shift in my life. But you know, even now I teach my student choir directors symphonic conducting.

SK – Why?

VG – Very simple. I explain to them: guys, if you and I are only engaged in choral conducting, then your technique will be quite limited, it will be dim, it will be deprived of opportunities to be lifted up. And in symphonic music, these opportunities are built-in from the start. And therefore, if we are going to go along in parallel with, say, the Schubert or Haydn symphonies, so that you study the phrasing, the musical form, then you will return to choral and, for example, spiritual music now on a whole new level. Of course, singing in the church is a special calling; we must be expressive on the one hand, and not be excessive on the other; to be deep in the musical sense and at the same time still not replace prayer with music.

SK – Psychologically, is it difficult to combine the practice of church choir director and secular conducting? Especially since the audiences are very different.

VG – I would not say that it is difficult. And with an audience that does not understand spiritual meanings and the liturgical specifics, one can always communicate in the language of universal values – and Vladyka Longin blessed me to do so.

SK – Let’s go back to the album: why Chesnokov?

VG – For Americans (and the CD was envisioned primarily for distribution in America) Chesnokov is a largely unknown composer. However, he has a [musical] language that is very clear for the modern American. It is quite sophisticated, it has that thread, that melody and harmony, which allow a person to become receptive to a “storming effect” on their consciousness of completely different modern musical styles, from rap to hard rock. Such a person can easily come to understand that this [sacred music] is beautiful.

SK – And sensorial

VG – Sensorial, yes, although in his liturgical compositions several expressions are intertwined, and one of them is actually where he overcomes this gentle, worldly sensoriality. His music here appears in the more succinct language of Old Russian harmony, that epic repository that is closest to Church use and, as such, it distances itself from excessively tortuous melody. The use of Znamenny chant takes the melodic bases and arranges them wonderfully – as Bach did, for example, in his chorales.

SK – Since we have touched on Bach: I have to admit, when I listen to your choir, it often occurs to me that you could have a wonderful Western European repertoire, if not Baroque, then Renaissance. Did you consider experimenting in this direction?

VG – It was so interesting that the singers and I already did this at the beginning of our creative journey. On the concert stage, of course; not on the kliros. When I had just started to work with the male choir of the Representation Church, we had a whole period when we were engaged in this. We performed "Ave Verum" by Mozart and the Motets of Palestrina. Then I realized, of course, that we really needed to focus on Russian church music; this is a whole world in itself. But this did not mean at all that I internally somehow became worse at relating, say, to the greatest works of the Dutch school, not to mention Bach. And with the advent of the orchestra, with the expansion of our audience, I would really like to return to this, at a new level and with a different experience.

SK – How was the recording of the album done?

VG – I selected singers from three choirs. These were the choirs of PaTRAM, the Moscow Representation Church of Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, and another hierarchal choir from Saratov. With God’s help, an exceptional group of 42 singers was formed. Metropolitan Longin blessed us to undertake this recording; he received us warmly in Saratov, and we sang the hierarchal services. Only after all of that did we record in the Saratov Theological Seminary. The uniqueness of this choir lay in the fact that there are six octavists, in the range of which there are real contra-octaves!

In addition to this, we needed to have no problems with pronunciation and diction, therefore we chose primarily those Americans who are familiar with Church Slavonic.

There was probably a total of four people who had no familiarity with it, but they exceeded all of my expectations and blended perfectly; you will not hear the slightest accent from the English-speaking singers!

The record itself was made by Soundmirror. This is a phenomenal, world-class team from Boston. All of their equipment had to be transported from America to Saratov. And it was a whole undertaking. The mere fact that it was necessary to first clear the equipment required quite a lot of time. There was even a fear that they would not have time to clear the equipment before the first round of recording. And in the summer of this year, we will record our second album – also in Saratov. I hope that this will also be well received. I don’t know about the GRAMMY results (although for me the nomination is definitely a victory), but the press on the first CD was very good. At MusicWeb International, three experts named it “the 2018 Recording of the Year,” without consulting with one another. Our producer Alexis Lukianov, our colleagues, and I all think that this played a part in the fact that the CD was nominated for a GRAMMY.

SK – Do I understand correctly that none of your Russian-American projects have any official backing?

VG – Not in the slightest; this is my private initiative. And I continue to come up with projects in this direction – in the fall, I hope to start a new music festival, which I simply called: “Russian-American Friendship in Manhattan.” This is a festival where Russian and American orchestral music will be performed by The Capital Symphony Orchestra. The site has already been found; it is a Roman Catholic church. For such a project, in my opinion, this is more suitable than any concert hall. It seems to me that a place where people come to pray, and not be imbued with the spirit of hostility, is a space more in keeping with the spirit of a festival with such a name. You see, the world unfortunately does not become kinder; it smells of gunpowder. But, at the same time, there are many people in the world who absolutely do not want to fight, who want a peaceful life. My wife and I have ten children; if I can do anything to save the world, then I have to.