Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Musica Aeterna performs in Holy Trinity Cathedral Jerusalem

It was a historical event in Jerusalem. For the first time ever, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Russian church in downtown Jerusalem, agreed to host a concert. People of all communities and creeds  thronged to the church on October 11th 2012 to hear Russian church music performed by the Musica Aeterna Chamber Choir - 19 singers conducted by its founder Maestro Ilya Plotkin. Visitors arriving early were invited to join a tour of the church. The concert was a project of the “Art Rainbow” non-profit organization in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church Delegation and Archimandrite Isidore Minayev, who has been head of the Patriarchal Mission since 2009.

The impressive, gleaming white structure of the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral, with its domes and bell towers, was established by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in the 19th century. The site was chosen because of its proximity to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the architect was Martin Ivanovich Eppinger. The church’s aim was to recreate the architecture- and atmosphere of St. Petersburg; building on Holy Trinity Cathedral started in 1860 and continued for over a decade. Holy Trinity became a welcoming centre for Russian Orthodox pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. During World War I, the Turks evicted all Christians from Jerusalem, leaving the church derelict. With Israel’s independence in 1948, the cathedral resumed functioning and was back in Russian Orthodox hands. The church’s interior is richly ornate, resplendent with massive chandeliers, carpets, Baroque iconography and a great many paintings of saints. It also boasts good acoustics.

The program consisted of 18th, 19th and 20th century sacred Russian music; it began with three movements from a Requiem by Alexandr Alexandrovich Arkhangelsky (1846-1924), a choral conductor in St. Petersburg whose more than 300 sacred settings range from simple arrangements of church chants to enriched settings in the more complex and freer “St. Petersburg style” of church music, a model in which composers used the practice of “harmonious chanting”. The singers created its pious, nostalgic and moving atmosphere in well-blended choral awareness.  Following Gregory Davidovsky’s “Now Lettest Thou”, with Helena Plotkin’s large, reedy voice soloing, we heard two of Dmitry Stepanovich Bortniansky’s (1751-1825) many concertos for 4-part a cappella mixed choir. The early 19th century of the classicist sacred concerto took its cues from the western motet, most composers writing the concertos after having studied in Italy or in Russia with Italian masters. Singing into the climaxes of the music, the Musica Aeterna singers filled the church with the bright- and joyful utterance of Bortniansky’s  Christmas work “Glory in the Highest”, later painting a more meditative and prayerful mood in his Concerto no.32 – Psalm 39:
‘Make known to me, o Lord, my end, and the measure of my days what it is; that I may know how frail I am…’ Bortniansky’s liturgical works combine Ukrainian choral tradition (including Russian- and Ukrainian secular song material) and 18th century Classical European style music. Of the same period, and working under similar influences, was renowned Ukrainian composer Stepan Anikievich Degtiarev (1766-1813), a composer thought to have written the first Russian oratorio, whose multi-sectional setting of Psalm 22 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me) expressed the text with a mix of vehemence, tranquility and optimism. In A.Frunza’s “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”, contralto Julia Plakhin’s voice was compelling in performing solo sections that alternated with the full choir.

Composer, choral conductor and teacher Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877-1924) composed over 500 choral works, 400 of which were sacred pieces. The most prolific composer of the Moscow Synodal School and a great polyphonist, he was known as the “conductor-magician”, this referring to his ability to “play on voices as on an instrument”. His music forms a fitting bridge between the musical tradition of the Soviet era and the present. We heard a scintillating and emotional reading of his “Prayer to the Virgin Patroness”, with mezzo-soprano Veronika Grace (director of the choir of the Notre Dame Jerusalem Center) as soloist. Soprano Hilma Digilov performed the solo role in I.Smirnov’s “Praise the Name of God”, her vocal line line threaded through the choral texture.

Born in 1966, Hilarion Alfeyev received his first education in music, studying violin, piano and composition at the Moscow Gnessins School and the Moscow State Conservatoire. In addition to over 600 publications in Russian- and western languages, Archbishop Hilarion composes sacred- and orchestral music. In his sonorous and luxuriantly tonal “Now Lettest Thou”, tenor soloist Dmitry Semenov’s singing blended with- and merged into Musica Aeterna’s choral timbre with a delicate sense of balance. Another priest combining an illustrious career as a cleric and a liturgical composer is Archbishop Ionafan Yeletskih (b.1949). His music merges Russian Orthodox choral form with themes from Latin Gregorian chant, surely a gesture of peace in the troubled times of orthodoxy in the Ukraine. Soloing with the choir in Ionafan’s ”My Soul Magnifyeth the Lord”, soprano Shirelle Dashevsky’s mellifluous voice soared out into the church, her singing well phrased and poetic.

The Musica Aeterna chamber choir, established in 1996 by Ilya Plotkin, is made up of professional singers from the former Soviet Union. The soloists among them are familiar artists in the local concert- and opera scene. Plotkin and his singers have a deep understanding of Russian liturgical music, its nostalgic undertones, its rich harmonies and profoundly spiritual earnestness. They know and express its musical- and emotional language, performing these choral works with both emotion and humility. Musica Aeterna was the right choir for this historic occasion; Maestro Ilya Plotkin and his singers provided an opportunity for many of us to hear these most beautiful choral works, most of which are hidden from the west.

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