“I Will Sing Praises Unto My God While I Have Any Being”
(Concert of Liturgical Music by the Holy Virgin Cathedral Choir of San Francisco)
Church singing is a special field in the musical arts. Bound to the texts of divine services, it has assumed a special, inimitable coloration, and absorbed the profound teaching of Orthodox faith.
St John Chrysostom, in pondering church singing, writes that nothing elevates the soul and gives it wings, nothing loosens its bonds to the body, inclining the soul to the contemplation of wisdom and disdain all that is of this earth, like singing and well-composed Divine song.
In Russia before the 1917 Revolution, there was an ancient tradition of church singing and a great many distinct schools like the Moscow School, St Petersburg School, Valaam School, Kievan School, and others, all with their music and their distinctive chants. It is a great misfortune that this tradition, as so many others, has been lost in the terrible years of Bolshevism, though there is a powerful movement and great efforts being made in Russia today to restore this treasured legacy.
On the West Coast of America, these traditions are cherished and handed down to new generations thanks to selfless musicians, one of whom was Mikhail Sergeevich Konstantinov, who directed San Francisco’s Cathedral Choir from 1953 until 1979. His student and successor, Vladimir Vadimovich Krassovsky, gave a wonderful account of his maestro in an interview to Russkaya zhizn’ [Russian Life] (March 3, 2012). Konstantinov was a talented singer, choir director and composer. Vladimir organized a concert given by the Cathedral Choir in the Catholic Church of the Star of the Sea, dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Konstantinov’s death. This was the first concert by the choir in the last ten years, and was a big event in the Russian diaspora community of California, drawing an audience of about 500 people, among whom were parishioners of various Orthodox churches of San Francisco, representatives of many organizations as well as Americans and other connoisseurs of church singing. Mr VN Vinokurov, Consul General of the Russian Federation in San Francisco, and his wife graced the event with their presence as well.
The concert opened with the traditional greeting of His Grace Bishop Theodosius of Seattle and a host of clergymen, with the singing of Ot Vostok solntsa do zapad [As Far as the East is From the West], followed by a protodeacon intoning Eis polla eti despota. After the greeting, a short speech was given by the rector of the Catholic parish in which he expressed joy that our church music concerts have resumed. Victor Collaso, soloist of the choir, thanked the administration of Star of the Sea for kindly sharing their space, and then spoke briefly on the life and work of Konstantinov. He also remembered singers that have reposed in the Lord since their last concert. Finally, in accordance with pre-Revolutionary tradition, he asked the audience to refrain from applauding until the end of each portion of the concert in order not to disrupt the atmosphere.
The program was very successful, consisting of must from all-night vigil and Divine Liturgy. The second part of the program included the Festal and Lenten cycles and concluded with the Rite of Matrimony.
The concert began with inspired intonations by Protodeacon Nicholas Triantafillidis, between which the choir sang the grand music from the service of the consecration of a church Kto yest’ Tsar Slavy [Who is This King of Glory?] by Mikhail Konstantinov, which he wrote for the 50th anniversary of the founding of and the great consecration of Holy Virgin Cathedral. It is worth noting that the inspired intonations of Fr Nicholas throughout the concert drew the music closer to the experience of attending divine services in church. Directing the concert was Konstantinov’s own student, Vladimir Krassovsky. The continuity of the tradition of singing in church is an enormous task for a choir director, and this is the wealth and development of church singing in the Russian Orthodox Church. The soloist Collaso sang wonderfully, rendering Razboinika blagorazumnogo [The Wise Theif] in the Kievan chant, contributing to the concert’s success with his clear, expressive voice. Another version of the same prayer, which sung in the Cathedral on Great Thursday, was performed by a children’s trio comprised of Larisa Krassovsky, Svetlana Krassovsky and Anastasia Danich.
There was another moment of note in the second part. The singing of Milost mira [Mercy of Peace] at concerts is frowned upon, and even forbidden, since it is during this time at Liturgy that the Holiest of Mysteries is performed: the consecration of the Holy Gifts. As soon as the choir began to sing, Vladyka Theodosius suddenly rose to his feet, emphasizing the uniqueness and sanctity of this moment of the divine service. Then the clergymen arose, followed by the rest of the audience… The palpable spirituality was indescribable.
It was later learned that special permission was received by His Eminence Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco and Western America, and blessing granted as an exception.
In addition to the above pieces, also sung were Dogmatic Theotokion (Tone II), Znamenny Chant; Resurrectional vespers prokimenon; Resurrectional troparion ("Today is salvation come to the world…"); Litia sticheron (Tone I), feast of the Ascension of the Lord; Exapostilarion of the Transfiguration; "O Virgin Theotokos, rejoice!…" (Greek Chant); Troparion of Pentecost; "In thee doth all creation rejoice…"
"Praise ye the name of the Lord…" (Mt. Athos Chant); Cherubic Hymn (based on the melody "Rejoice…"); "It is truly meet…" (composition of Tsar Theodore I); Troparion of the Nativity of Christ; Psalm 127; Three troparia: "Rejoice, O Isaiah!…", "O holy martyrs…", and "Glory to Thee, O Christ God…" (from the Wedding Service)
The choir amazed the audience with its magnificent sound, its wonderful harmoniousness, beauty and natural voices. Flawless intonation and execution conquered the audience.
We hope that this fabulous tradition continues of offering concerts of Liturgical music during Great Lent, a period when Orthodox songs not only bring sweetness to our ears but fill our souls with the joy of prayer and purification. They elevate our thoughts over all that is earthly, bringing reconciliation within ourselves and our neighbors, they ease our troubles, relieve our sorrows, and warm our hearts with heavenly love. The secret of this music is not only in the great mastery of the performers but in the church music itself, which reveals even for those ignorant of the Truth of Christ the depth and spiritual richness of Orthodox teachings.
There were many Americans in attendance. One thinks that for them this was not simply a musical performance, that they were able to sense what was most important—that the Cathedral Choir is special in its sense of prayer and piety.
The performers, including many young people, showed potential, with so much creative power and vocal talent and choral mastery. Over the years that this choir has existed, several generations have changed hands, but the spirituality has not changed.
After thunderous and protracted applause, the choir director announced that the choir would perform Otche nash [Our Father] by Kedrov as arranged by Konstantinov. Silence returned to the church and the listeners were once again immersed in spiritual contemplation, and maybe even prayer… The eyes of many were filled with tears.
Members of the audience had the most ecstatic reactions to the performance; this was a real gift to the Russians of California. We hope that the Cathedral Choir under its director Vladimir Krassovsky continue to preserve these treasurers of Russian singing, and not to let their high level of mastery drop, so as to bring joy to parishioners and other listeners. And to carry on the mission of Orthodoxy on the American land, sowing the seeds of faith, love and goodness.