Mozart in Moscow

Classic Arts Features   Mozart in Moscow
Mostly Mozart takes a musical journey to Russia, highlighted by the U.S. premiere of the Russian Patriarchate Choir on August 25.

Ever since the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began touring Europe as a child prodigy, his music has influenced all kinds of artists. Still immensely popular, his work continues to infuse and inspire. While this year's programming for the Mostly Mozart Festival focuses on the great composer's travels, there is one country featured in that lineup in which Mozart never set foot: Russia.

"We decided to take the idea of travel in a more conceptual direction," says Jane Moss, Vice President of Programming for Lincoln Center. "The works and the composers on the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra program were all deeply influenced by Mozart, and he obviously had an enormous impact on many of the Russian composers of subsequent generations."

The highlight of the Russian programming is the U.S. debut of the Russian Patriarchate Choir. Founded in 1983, this Moscow-based all-male choir is known for its striking performances of Russian liturgical music. Its unusual sound, traditional repertoire, and ability to perform both indigenous and Western Classical fare led the Mostly Mozart programmers to this extraordinary group.

The choir's a cappella performances during Mostly Mozart are designed to introduce audiences to Russian liturgical music, highlighting a variety of composers and styles from the 16th, 17th, and 19th centuries. There are such familiar names as Chesnokov, Popov-Platonov, and Rachmaninoff, alongside some lesser-known and anonymous sources. Anatoly Grindenko, the ensemble's director, chose pieces that illustrate the development of this particular style of chant. Two works on the program reflect the period when the Russian style was transitioning from Byzantine to European influences, while others feature early polyphony that is vastly different from what appeared elsewhere in the musical world.

"Early European polyphony, with its linear nature, is built upon the principle of counterpoint," says Grindenko. "The early Russian version was not even recognized by the singers as polyphony. For them, three or four voices in a psalm were one voice, but a divided one. Metaphorically, it reminds one of a river that splits into many smaller streams when it encounters a barrier, only to flow back together later. Interestingly, the lower voices often are higher than the high voices and vice versa."

The religious aspects of the chant are just as important as the musical ones. The basis of Russian liturgical music is fundamentally different than its European counterpart, and it was passed on from teacher to student through spiritual study. As religion became less popular, the system of sharing the works deteriorated.

"Thousands of manuscripts remain containing hieroglyphs that become legible only in the course of worship," says Grindenko. "For example, Psalm 4 is a traditional song that uses the Greek word isson. Figuratively speaking, it is a symbol of uninterrupted prayer which goes into eternity or, similar to the golden background in icons, the sign of God's light."

The ensemble will not only present its traditional liturgical fare but will also take part in two performances of Mozart's Mass in C minor with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra that feature soprano Sandrine Piau, mezzo-soprano Tove Dahlberg, tenor Gregory Turay, and bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, led by conductor Louis Langrée. The first performance of the work (on August 26) will be in a concert that highlights the juxtaposition of chant with this Mass, which is one of Mozart's most revered sacred works.

"It will be a remarkable event," says Moss, "because it will be that deeply atmospheric sort. You'll be able to smell the incense floating around. Then to have the group incorporated into the Mass in C minor will inevitably make the work seem somewhat different, too. It is, of course, those wonderful Russian basses‹even from a musical point of view I'm sure the chorus will have a slightly different hue to it than a standard one."

Mostly Mozart's series focusing on Russia actually begins with a concert (August 16 and 17) by the Festival Orchestra led by Maestro Langrée. The program comprises works by three Russian composers who were greatly influenced by Mozart's music, with two important homages to the great composer: Schnittke's Moz-Art à la Haydn and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"), as well as Tchaikovsky's classically styled Violin Concerto in D major with violinist Joshua Bell.

"It is difficult to talk about specific instances of Mozart's influence on Russian music," says Grindenko. "Mozart was the air that the Russian composers breathed. In turn, Italian culture was the air that nurtured Mozart."

Many 18th-century Russian composers studied in Italy, while Italians came to Russia to teach. Baldassare Galuppi, for example, became the head of the Imperial Kapella during the reign of Catherine the Great. He taught Dmitry Bortnyansky (whose Te Deum will be performed by the choir), who in turn trained in Italy. In addition, many popular European performers were invited to Russia during the time of Peter the Great, staging operas in palaces and estates throughout the country. Today, Mozart continues to be an integral part of the culture. Grindenko shares a quote from the film Siberian Barber by Nikita Mikhalkov, in which an American officer exclaims, "Mozart must have been Russian."

"Mozart is present in the life of every Russian, practically since birth," says Grindenko. "He is no less popular in Russia than Pushkin is. From early childhood, students play his piano sonatas; in choir schools the Mass and Requiem are core requirements; in opera studios, his operas are staged. But despite this consistent and easy access, no other composer is as difficult to understand as Mozart is. The challenge to understanding him is in his simplicity."

Karissa Krenz is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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