Piece fits chorus to a Russian `t'

Slavonic expert tutors local singers

Baltimore Vivat!

February 22, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

On a recent blustery night, members of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society gather in a church hall in Homeland to rehearse Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil, a piece based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy and written in Church Slavonic.

Conductor Tom Hall leads the singers from behind a grand piano as they prepare for tomorrow's concert at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. To his right is a visitor, clad in black cassock, a silver crucifix on a chain around his neck, with a long, brown beard. He listens intently to the music, following along with the score, occasionally scribbling a note on a pad of paper.

As the chorus pauses at the end of a section, Hall turns to the visitor to hear his verdict.

"Usually it's a dead giveaway when speaking Russian with [the pronunciation of] t's," says the Rev. John Vass, a Russian Orthodox priest and expert in Church Slavonic. "Our t's are very hard. Russian t's are soft."

Later, he tells the choir:

"I get the feeling you're singing a folk song and not a spiritual song. It's too sharp," Vass says

"More vowel, less `t'," Hall instructs.

Vass is lending his linguistic expertise to the chorus, correcting its pronunciation of a foreign tongue that is no longer spoken, except in liturgical settings. For the last month and a half, the chorus has been rehearsing the Rachmaninoff piece, which is his arrangement of the vespers and lauds sung each week during the Russian Orthodox Saturday night service.

The piece is grueling for singers in several ways. It is sung entirely a cappella, no musical accompaniment to give them a break. It has 15 movements and lasts about 70 minutes. And then there is the Slavonic.

Ellen Clayton, an alto who has sung with the chorus for 25 years, said the guttural sounds and the stringing together of multiple consonants in Slavonic pose the greatest challenge.

"It's unheard of in the English language," she says. "It's hard to get our lips around it, particularly when we're singing very fast notes, like eighth notes or 16th notes."

One particular word - vzbranoy, Slavonic for "oh victorious hosts" - nearly pushed her over the top.

"That's four consonants in a row that have to be pronounced," she says. "We have to pronounce that word, and we have to roll the `r' as well, all in the space of a quarter note."

It may be hard to pronounce for Americans, but Vass calls Slavonic "a very beautiful melodic language."

It was spoken by Slavs in Eastern Europe and was put into written form in the ninth century by saints Cyril and Methodius, Greek missionaries who created a written script to translate the Bible in the vernacular. Today its use is confined to the liturgy of the Orthodox Church.

Vass grew up hearing the language in church, but didn't learn his Slavonic until he was a seminary student in Leningrad, whose name of St. Petersburg was restored after the fall of communism. From 1986 to 1991, he attended what was then Leningrad Theological Seminary, now St. Petersburg Theological Seminary.

Ordained in January 2001, he is an assistant pastor of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in East Baltimore, and leads a small congregation of immigrants at the chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul in Elkridge.

In singing Orthodox liturgical music, proper diction is key, Vass says. But even more important is the emotion of the words.

"Much of Russian liturgical music is written so the music itself portrays a message, in addition to the actual words," he says. "That's why many people find Russian liturgical music to be mystical and moving without understanding the words. Because it's written to do just that: To move your spirit to prayer."

Although not everyone in the chorus necessarily believes the religious message in the words they sing, Hall said he senses the vocalists' appreciation of the spiritual dimension of Rachmaninoff's adaptation.

"One of the things I find most compelling about it, and I think our singers do, too, is it's a broad and leisurely palette that this piece is constructed on. It's a very meditative, contemplative piece, and it unfolds with great nobility and great emotional weight," Hall says. "It gives you the space to ruminate on these issues of salvation and resurrection and faith and trust in God."

Although the priest's feedback was appreciated, some of his suggestions may have been a bit arcane. When it came to the word for Lord - "gospod" - which naturally is repeated often in the piece, Vass broke down the pronunciation possibilities. If you go to an Orthodox service in Ukraine, he says, you'll hear the "g" pronounced softly, more like an "h." And if you go to a service in Russia, the "g" is harder. And in places in between, he concluded, the "g" is somewhere between the two extremes.

"What would you hear for the west side of Charles Street?" asks a bemused Hall. "Because that's where we'll be singing this."

Vass pauses for a quick thought.

"Maybe," he says, "a happy medium."

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