Sacred Revolutions: St. Petersburg Choir Brings Rachmaninoff’s Vespers to America

It’s taken conductor Vladislav Chernushenko 25 years to get to the United States to tour. Originally, the group he heads-the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir-was scheduled to make their first American tour back in 1978. “The contract was signed,” he says, “And then it didn’t happen for political reasons.”

The history of the St. Petersburg choir can be charted out along centuries of political reasons, events, and decisions, yet their music has kept its close ties to the spiritual. One of the world’s oldest choirs, the group formed in Moscow in 1479 for the express purpose of accompanying Tsar Ivan III wherever he went, celebrating mass or entertaining. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great both sang in choir at certain points. In 1703, the choir sang at the inauguration of St. Petersburg a major event in the choir’s history, and there they remained. In 1837, the great Russian composer Mikhail Glinka became Kapellmeister, and wrote many operatic works expressly for the choir. During the Communist Revolution the choir’s sacred music fell out of favor, but the group continued, under the name the Popular Academic Chorus, and performed works by Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, and Prokofiev. As rules became lax, the sacred crept back in, until the coming of perestroika unleashed the history of sacred Russian composers and work back into the repertoire.

One of these works is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” which is the core of the choir’s performance at Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Tuesday. Vespers was written to accompany an all-night liturgy observed on feast day eves. In this stirring, 75-minute composition, Rachmaninoff combines traditional Byzantine Chants of the Russian Orthodox church and his own predilections toward harmony and composition. It’s a masterwork of choral music that has mostly gone unheard outside Russia.

“This work was last performed in Russia in 1928,” said Chernushenko, calling from the Ann Arbor hotel room where the 60-piece choir was staying as part of an American tour. “Then in 1981, it was rediscovered. Our choir sang it in 1982, and since then it has been popular.”

The work was never entirely forgotten, though. “Like Christianity, it still persisted in Russia on a genetic level, as part of our memory. It was a tradition that was passed on.”

American audiences may associate Rachmaninoff only with his piano concertos and symphonies, but to the his own people, the composer’s broad repertoire is known and hailed in much the same way as Mozart’s. Apart from the Vespers, Rachmaninoff wrote operas, liturgies, and other sacred music. “Many of these works he wrote in exile in America,” Chernushenko noted.

The tour is also giving Chernushenko a chance to introduce audiences to other examples of choral music, with a selection of folk and sacred melodies. He also hopes to expose America, if he tours here again, with the music of Gyorgi Sviridov, a 20th century composer of keyboard and choral work. “He would be another height to conquer,” he says of the rather unknown composer. A brief exposure to Sviridov’s work on a European tour received a very favorable response.

Chernushenko has been involved with choirs since the age of eight. Born in 1936, he went on to receive his musical education at the Choir College of the Leningrad Capetia, the Leningrad Conservatoire, graduating at age 22 with a specialty in choir conducting. After a break in which he taught music in the Urals, he returned to the Conservatoire, graduating a second time with a degree in opera and symphonic conducting. During his studies he formed the Leningrad Chamber Choir, and held the head post for 17 years. His success there led to the Capella Choir, where he became Artistic Director and the Chief Conductor in 1974. Although the Choir was still going, it is Chernushenko that really brought the whole venture, and with it the performance of sacred music, back from the brink of obscurity. Chernushenko was in the right place when the political winds began to shift, and pushed for the abolition of the ideological prohibitions from the Stalinist era. Under his watch and his tutelage, the Capella was reborn.

But Chernushenko makes a point of not creating a narrative of Western-style “freedom” overcoming dark Communist artistic repression. “There were no real changes in the repertoire,” he says when asked about life before and after perestroika, “The choir always sang what they pleased. But we now have more knowledge of works, more communication, and more opportunities to travel.” He only hints at the troubling history in those earlier decades. “Of course, we all suffered losses from the revolution.” Chernushenko’s voice trails off into the darkness of history, too modest a man to delve further.

Neither has the fall of Communism been completely positive towards the arts. Life in pre-perestroika Russia may have been ideologically strict, but the arts received national funding. In a free land with a free market, the arts are now subject to economic forces just like any other product. “Society now is not so good for the arts,” he comments. “But then there are still students graduating in music and in the arts in general. There’s always hope.”

Of his career, Chernushenko says, “The choir is my life, and choral music is the highest aspect of cultural life.”

So far on the tour, the response has been tremendous. “It was very unexpected,” he says of the audience reaction. “We weren’t sure how America would react. The enthusiasm here has been very gladdening, very moving. I’m glad we can represent the true picture of Russian spiritual music.”
Special thanks to Inna Stepanenko for her assistance on this article.

UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir
When: Tuesday, November 18, 8 p.m.
Where: Our Lady of Sorrows Church
Cost: $28 general; $19 UCSB students
Information: Arts & Lectures Box Office, 893-3535.

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