Back in 1939, Winston Churchill described Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" -- which I found an apt description of the glories and the mystery of Russian choral music.
Last week, an interview with Irina Shachneva, the famed Russian choral conductor, singer and pianist-organist now living in San Jose, cleared up some of the mystery. Shachneva is preparing several local and international choirs for what will be the first International Russian Choral Music Festival to be held in the Bay Area. This massive event will consist of four choral concerts and master classes and educational events from Aug. 3 through Aug. 10 at venues in Berkeley and San Francisco.
I asked her what makes the Russian choirs so distinctive? Why are the basses capable of singing with a timbre that can resonate through a listener's very bones? And why do the alto voices seem to have such an extended lower range and a depth that makes them sound the way rich maple syrup tastes? Even the timbres of Russian sopranos and tenors sound unique.
Shachneva's face broke into a radiant smile as she explained, "It had its beginnings back in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir of Russia investigated religions throughout the world to determine which might be best for his country. He chose the Byzantine Orthodox tradition as the most beautiful and suitable for Russia."
From the 10th to the 19th centuries, she explained, only male voices were allowed to sing in a Russian religious service. The significant difference between the Byzantine-Russian and the Western churches was that, in the former, no instruments were permitted; only human voices were fit for holy worship.
"So, it was the singers themselves who had to learn to produce the many tonal colors and timbres that have come to be typical of the Russian choral tradition. Eventually, many of the qualities of Russian folk music were absorbed as well," she said.
The upcoming festival will offer a panorama of this grand Russian choral tradition, from ancient monastic chants to modern contemporary works, interspersed with a good deal of folk music.
"Heaven and Earth: The Roots of Russian Choral Music" kicks off the festival at 4 p.m. Aug. 3 at First Unitarian Church, 1187 Franklin St. in San Francisco. Participating groups will be the famed Slavyanka Men's Chorus, directed by Shachneva; Burlingame's Church of All Russian Saints Choir, directed by Andrei Roudenko; San Francisco's Choir of Holy Virgin Cathedral, directed by Vladimir Krassovsky; Kitka; Kostroma; and the Slavyanka Women Singers, also directed by Shachneva. A highlight will be the West Coast premiere of "Life and Death," by Boris Kalistratov.
"Come, Sing, Listen and Learn," a series of master classes, discussions and performance lectures is at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 7, also at First Unitarian. Events include "The Secrets of the Russian Bass," featuring Mikhail Svetlov, star of the Bolshoi Theater and the Metropolitan Opera; "Countertenor and mezzo-soprano: the same and different," with Andrey Nemzer, countertenor and winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera competition; and "1, 2, 3, Sing," a master class for all voices featuring a new vocal method by Alexander Prokhorov, artistic director and soloist of the Commonwealth Lyric Opera in Boston and internationally recognized voice instructor.
The third program, "The Golden Age of Russian Vocal Music," is at 8 p.m. Aug. 8 at St. Mark's Church, 2300 Bancroft Way in Berkeley. Featured artists will be Nemzer, countertenor; Svetlov, bass; Olga France and Elena Gurevich, sopranos; and Olga Bykhovsky, mezzo-soprano, in a selection of great Russian songs and arias.
The fourth program, once again at First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, will be "Sacred and Folk, Ancient and Modern-Great Russian Choral Music for Male Choir," at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9. Performing are Slavyanka Men's Chorus and the Yale University Russian Chorus Alumni, as well as the International Russian Choral Music Festival Choir and soloists.
"Treasures of 1,000 Years" concludes the festival at 4 p.m. Aug. 10 at the First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way in Berkeley, with a massed choir of festival singers and soloists assembled under the baton of Shachneva to sing a panoply of Russian music ranging from medieval monastic chants through the present day.
Tickets, $15 to $30, are available at the door and online at www.russianmusicfest.us/events.
Contact Cheryl North at email@example.com.
To hear a sampling of music that will be performed at the festival, go to www.mercurynews.com/music.