Blessed Art Thou Among Women is a magnificent collection of settings for a cappella chorus of sacred texts extolling the Virgin Mary. On this Reference Recordings disc, conductor Peter Jermihov leads the PaTRAM Institute Singers. I spoke to Peter Jermihov about this recording, the place of sacred choral music in our classical music world, and as the challenges artists confront as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How do you assess today’s global classical music environment? What is the role of sacred music in that environment?
I think, sadly, classical music has been in decline over the past 50 years. This is evidenced by diminishing resources supporting classical music enterprises and shrinking markets and audiences where this music has traditionally thrived. The reasons for this are not as complex as they are numerous, thus making my response limited in scope. Sacred music, originating from or functioning in religious ritual, is also part of a shrinking trend; religious institutions are losing their constituents, and the glorious choirs often associated with worship are in a steady decline. Happily, for those of us who are passionate around the performance of choral music with a religious or spiritual dimension, sacred music is now thriving in the domain of professional choirs and ensembles. My opinion is that in this domain of professional music-making, sacred music is out of survival mode and offering the classical music idiom a means to continue to evolve. Understood in the broadest sense to include music with a spiritual and/or religious dimension, I would venture to say it offers a kind of antidote to the seeming chaos of our surrounding culture. But it is also, I believe, a functional expression of the human spirit seeking its Source. There is a powerful energy and inevitability to this quest. Sacred music is on the rise, and may help form a new paradigm for the revitalization of classical music in general.
In recent years, there has been a wealth of excellent recordings of Russian sacred music and other sacred choral music rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy. How do you explain that phenomenon?
Vis-à-vis the list of impressive recordings released in 2020 with Orthodox themes (Blessed Art Thou Among Women, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Benedict Sheehan, Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, Kastalsky: Requiem for Fallen Brothers, and Stabat Mater by Arvo Pärt), all of which are worthy of high honors, I think there are several reasons for this interest. To begin with, Russian choral music has been, since my earliest recollections, a focal point for outstanding American choirs. There is no question that Russian sacred music from the 19th century and the mystique of the Russian choral sound were inspirational sources for choirs of elite liberal arts colleges with religious orientations, such as the Westminster Choir College, St. Olaf College, Luther College, Concordia College, and others. These colleges and their legendary choirs promulgated a choral aesthetic that was filled with rich choral texture and tone, the characteristic deep-bass sonority, and a heartfelt emotionalism. Robert Shaw contributed to the bringing-to-light of this repertoire with his historic Telarc recording of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (1990); this masterpiece and this master performance may solely be responsible for the plethora of recordings of the Russian repertoire that followed. So, there were effective protagonists. Second, the Russian Romantic idiom provided an exotic flavor that fed a choral appetite for ever-new and exciting repertoire. Third, publishers found a tried-and-true lucrative product. And, certainly not least, audiences love hearing this music.
But for all these tangible and practical reasons, Russian sacred music from the 19th century, which laid the foundation for later compositions rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy, espoused a spiritual dimension that transcended national and formal religious boundaries. Georgy Sviridov, a Russian nationalist composer from the Soviet era, left a significant body of choral music utilizing Orthodox texts; his masterpieces are not functionally Orthodox but Orthodox in spirit. Arvo Pärt, who holds the honor of being the most frequently performed living classical composer, is a devout Orthodox Christian and an Estonian by birth; his music clearly speaks to a huge universal audience. John Tavener and Ivan Moody, both British composers and converts to the Orthodox faith, have composed in a wide variety of genres, sometimes implicitly Orthodox in content; their music is often based on ethnic sources but is essentially cosmopolitan. Many other Orthodox composers can be listed here. What unifies all of them is a profoundly spiritual orientation, a transcendent beauty in their music, and a distinctive ability to touch the human heart. These qualities, I think, are the reasons for their appeal to audiences around the world and why Orthodox music is repeatedly and increasingly programmed.
Let’s talk about your new recording on the Reference label, "Blessed Art Thou Among Women." What is the genesis the recording’s theme and content?
The Executive Producers of this album, Katherine and Alexis V. Lukianov, approached me with the desire to record a CD of Orthodox hymns devoted to the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This CD was to be part of a larger vision to release “several more CDs over the next five years” under my direction. (See http://referencerecordings.com/.../the-divine-liturgy-of.../.) After Kathy Lukianov and I researched the existing settings with Dormition texts, it became apparent that we would need to broaden the theme to include all Marian hymns, not limiting ourselves to the one feast. The shift allowed us to include a broader range of historical periods and styles and never-before-recorded gems from the Russian repertory. In addition, Kathy and Alex’s father—The Very Reverend Valery Lukianov—had recently passed away, and their wish was to honor him with a dedicatory CD recording. This personal touch explains the inclusion in the CD of two hymns at the end of the program that have no apparent connection to the Theotokos.
How did you go about selecting the works featured on this disc, and deciding upon the order in which they appear?
Recording a CD with one major work does not pose programming or organizational challenges, but assembling a collage of three-minute choral pieces is always a test of ingenuity. On the surface, the Marian theme would seem to simplify the task, but the sheer volume of works to consider made it challenging. Honoring the initial Dormition theme, Kathy and I agreed to keep Rachmaninoff’s choral concerto, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer, as the central piece on the program. I then decided to organize the rest of the program by creating a block of choral concertos followed by the pairing of texts, some famous and some obscure, thus offering the listener a chance to hear the same hymns in contrasting styles. The overriding principle of organization was that of balancing the program with compositions that are rarely performed with beloved gems, works that are liturgically functional with artistic conceptions, and finally pieces of every epoch from the Baroque period to the present day. The order of program was determined by consideration of tonalities, tempos, and general character of the pieces; for listeners without perfect pitch or musical training, these factors may work subliminally but they form a flow and an inner logic. Georgy Sviridov’s A Hymn of Praise to the Mother of God, Boris Ledkovsky’s The Angel Cried, and Sergey Zheludkov’s Do Not Lament Me, O Mother, which later emerged as the best-received works on the recording—for the performers and many listeners—are my personal favorites. I am immensely grateful to my friends and colleagues who sent me scores to consider for inclusion and who offered helpful guidance—Peter Fekula, Vladimir Krassovsky, Vladimir Morosan, and Marina Rakhmanova.
What are some of the special elements of this recording?
One often wonders and frequently hears: “What would J. S. Bach say if he heard a world-class, modern-day, period instrument ensemble perform his music?” Without question, the virtuosity, artistic insight, and sheer polish of our modern-day professional ensembles, as well as the sophistication of current recording technology, would leave him awed. But I would like to think that he would, as a bottom-line evaluation, accept or reject an ensemble’s performance on the basis of its capacity to move him (movere—a standard Baroque-era criterion). A common benchmark for choirs that are nominated for prestigious awards is their “pristineness”; the intonation must be nigh impeccable, the blend and diction beyond reproach, and the vertical alignment of consonants flawless. Conductors, willy-nilly, pursue this level of technical perfection.
The PaTRAM Institute Singers is not a choir that regularly meets or concertizes throughout the year. It is, moreover, not a Russian choir; only a third of its singers are native Russians. Faith orientation was not a criterion for membership. It is a choir of top-level professional singers who are hand-picked by me for their talent, serious dedication to sacred music, and who are able to gather for intensive, week-long recording sessions. I have conducted two recordings with this choir; half of the singers for Blessed Art Thou Among Women are the same singers I picked for our first recording—The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Kurt Sander, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Choral Performance category. I aspire to the “pristine factor” alluded to above but consider it an added bonus. For me, choral tone is a manifestation of one’s inner life—the seat of psychic, soulful, and mind-heart connections. With the Russian repertoire, one can say, tone is everything. The singers I pick and the artistic goals I set before them focus on two main objectives: to sing with expression and to make music in a manner that moves the listener. A great recording captures the magic of a live performance. I feel our work together achieves these objectives; the performance is visceral, spontaneous, and concert-like, and, for an American ad-hoc choir, this product is remarkably authentic and moving!
As we conduct this interview, the world is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The global impact of this virus has been monumental and catastrophic. How have musicians struggled with the challenges posed by COVID-19?
The performing musician in the modern world—the singer, instrumentalist, and conductor—has taken an unprecedented blow from the COVID-19 pandemic. There are glimmers of hope for the slow return to “normalcy” but, in essence, ensembles can’t make music, singers can’t sing, conductors have no one to lead, and audiences can’t congregate—the perfect storm—what could be worse?!
Singers and wind players are under special scrutiny. The 122-member Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State held rehearsals on March 3 and 10, after which 33 members became infected, two members died, and 20 members had probable infections; this tragic development early on in the pandemic contributed to a formed impression that singing is an activity that is particularly susceptible to a high rate of infection and should be curtailed. Since March of 2020, a considerable amount of aerosol studies using wind instruments, singers, and theater performers have been conducted, and the preliminary results of these studies are encouraging. Originating at the University of Bristol, the University of Colorado, and Colorado State University, this research is now rapidly evolving, and there is reason to think that the early stigma attached to choirs may be refuted with sensible measures for safety.
But what is the impact of this cessation of musical activity on the musician and our cultural life? To take a more cynical view, one might say that if before the pandemic the performing arts were barely maintaining or slightly gaining ground in the fight for relevancy, they are now in an existential crisis: “It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted any more: neither art itself, nor art in its relationship to the whole, nor even the right of art to exist” (Theodor Adorno from Aesthetic Theory). It seems to me the performing artist may take the long road back to the stage alone, with little or no help from the government (at least in America), and the motivation to make music at all will need to come from some deep, unwavering internal source. Only recreative artists with truly strong visions, passionate hearts, imagination, and inordinate will-power may survive the journey home to relevancy. But I am extremely hopeful that the creative artist—the composer—will find inspiration and purpose in this trying time. His or her relevancy and motivation may emerge in this time of pandemic in a profound way. Isolation may be the composer’s blessing. Now may be the time to write music that speaks of “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” (to quote William Faulkner from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech). Now may be the time to look to spiritual sources for a response to the existential threat posed by the pandemic. A paradigm shift from the material to the spiritual may be imminent. Circling back to the apparent rise of sacred music, I think this shift is happening. I send out an earnest shout of support and encouragement to every composer for whom visions of sound translate into visions of hope.
You are the Founder and Artistic Director of the Society of Saint Romanos the Melodist. Describe this organization’s purpose and direction.
Twenty years ago, I founded the Society of Saint Romanos the Melodist as an independent, not-for-profit corporation devoted to the advocacy of Eastern Orthodox culture and with Orthodox music at its center. The Society is endorsed by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America and based in Chicago. Recognizing the diversity principle and plurality of ethnic groups in America, the Society’s goal is to include in its cultural program all the various branches of the Orthodox Faith. It is, moreover, concerned principally with interfaith cultural exchange and bringing the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith to the American public at large. There is no focus on one repertoire or ethnicity.
Over the course of two decades, the Society has produced numerous concerts of sacred music, sponsored pilgrimages, theological seminars, and commissions of new works of art, and organized masterclasses for conductors and composers. These events have crystalized a direction that places creativity at its center. In 2015, the Society commissioned the Greek Liturgy from British composer Ivan Moody; this major work was premiered by the St. Romanos Cappella, a professional chamber choir under the auspices of the Society. Additional commissions are in progress, featuring composers Zoran Mulic, Kurt Sander, and Nazo Zakkak. As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, I am very much looking forward to resume the presentation of these Orthodox composers in concert and in CD recordings.
The annual Orthodox Music Masterclass is another Society project that grows out of a notion that the furtherance of new music is a historical norm. In previous centuries, contemporary music was never a genre or a distinct category of music. From the rise of composers in the Middle Ages—musicians who signed their names on their works of art—through the 19th century, music was always “contemporary.” In current practice, this paradigm is almost totally reversed: We now perform mostly music of dead composers, great composers to be sure, but the performance of living composers and their music is now the anomaly. In the Orthodox Music Masterclass, we aspire to reverse this reversal and reestablish the norm. We are placing the creative aspect of music-making front and center.
There is an additional twist to the plot. The Orthodox Music Masterclass combines the training of conductors with the mentoring of composers. The entire repertoire of the masterclass consists of newly composed works by aspiring composers. The student conductors are asked to prepare this repertoire for their studies under established master conductors. With this unique concept, composers and conductors are afforded the opportunity to interact with each other and experience the creative interfacing of both product and process. The Orthodox Music Masterclass 2021 will take place in Chicago June 24–27 and feature an internationally acclaimed faculty—composers Matthew Arndt, Natasha Bogojevich, Ivan Moody, and Kurt Sander, and conductors Steven Fox, Tamara Petijevic, and Liubov Pivovarova. I am thrilled to work alongside these stellar artists and bring the project to fruition.
Your musical career embraces the disciplines of conductor and teacher. Tell us about your work in both those spheres in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic put a halt to my professional conducting engagements around the globe. In some cases, concerts have been postponed indefinitely, in other cases simply cancelled. There is no mitigation of this misfortune, which has hit all musicians and performing artists in varying degrees. I have shifted my energies from performing to teaching. The virtual format has proven to be remarkably successful for the teaching of conducting—the student presents, the teacher comments, then illustrates alternate gestures; the process is sequential and thus very workable. The students are asked to conduct silently or solfege their way through the score or, in the final phase, conduct to a recording; the inner ear is actually challenged more in this learning environment than in the usual two-piano format. I maintain a virtual studio of 12 choral and orchestral conductors from various countries and with a multitude of objectives: budding conductors preparing for graduate studies or competitions, established professionals honing their skills or building a repertoire, and amateur choral directors stepping into accountability with respect to musicianship and score preparation. Whatever the obje