A DECADE OF RUSSIAN CULTURE IN SCOTLAND
July 21st 2017
By George Lapshynov
Following the celebration of Russkaya Cappella’s decennial on June 22nd, 2019 as part of the Russian-British Year of Music 2019, George Lapshynov interviews Svetlana Zvereva about the choir history and future. Lovers of Russian music in Scotland are quite familiar with Russkaya Cappella’s repertoire and style, and with its very distinct name. The choir was established a decade ago in Glasgow by Stuart Campbell and Svetlana Zvereva, its concerts regularly fill entire venues, its repertoire is rich and complicated, and strives to bring to its audience the unknown masterpieces of Russian music.
GL: Russkaya Cappella has just successfully celebrated its first decade. What do you see when you look back at its achievements?
SZ: The choir this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. This is an event Stuart Campbell, with whom I founded this choir in 2009, did not live to witness, though he very much looked forward to it. All these years, we both worked with tremendous dedication, dedicating all our talent, soul and knowledge to this project. Over the ten years of its existence some fifty singers have sung under the banner of Russkaya Cappella. Some joined and then left after varying amounts of time, but many also settled in, having been captivated by the choir’s unusual and outstanding repertoire.
GL: Could you tell us about how the choir came into being ten years ago?
SZ: I will never forget our first ever meeting in St. Bride’s Church, on Hyndland Road in August 2009, with a local group of Russian choral music enthusiasts who had expressed a desire to sing under our direction. They wanted to immerse themselves more completely in the Russian national musical identity, and so Stuart and I started working on this. I wanted to journey with that group through all the stages of the evolution of choral music – all the way from the Middle-Ages to contemporary compositions. My vision is that both singers and audience gain an understanding of the depth, richness and diversity of Russian music and of its spiritual essence.
GL: So, if I understand correctly, you didn’t simply bring together a group of individuals for the sole pleasure of singing – there was a project behind it.
SZ: Yes, you're right. The choir’s programme of development as we designed it had its roots in the traditions of standard Russian choral practice from Imperial Russia as it had existed during its last decades. It is during this very period that the Russian concert choir, as a concept, came into existence, establishing the standard repertoire choir along three axes: Russian sacred music, music by classical composers set to secular texts, and Russian folk song.
GL: I see. However, is it feasible to have a repertoire this vast?
SZ: Ancient Russian melodism was to become the founding principle of Russkaya Cappella, including folklore just as much as church chants of all kinds, in unison or harmony, for one or multiple voices. Such a repertoire stands out for its depth and originality and is best able to create the rich picture that is Russian national choral music. The choir’s ‘musical armoury’ also includes freely composed sacred music. Figures such as Bortnyansky, Turchaninov or Lvov, all linked to the Petersburg Court singing chapel, best represent this aspect of the Russian choral heritage and have figured in our past repertoire. The choir associates itself also to the Moscow tradition and its key figures, including Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, Kastalsky, Grechaninov and others. The music of the great Soviet composer, Georgii Sviridov, which also figures in our repertoire, expresses vividly the national “credo” of Russian choral music post 1917. We also perform music from the Russian worldwide diaspora, and in particular from the “Parisian Russians” Nikolai Kedroff (father and son) and Maxim Kovalevsky. We can confidently say that any original composition, provided it falls within our capabilities, will be performed at some point in our concerts. Our choir is currently the only one in the United Kingdom specialising in practically all genres of Russian music. Moreover, we are the sole choir which gives both secular concerts and participates in Orthodox church services.
GL: Let’s move on to the choir’s technical level. It is known that Sergey Taneyev’s “John of Damascus” is not accessible to any choir. Would you say Russkaya Cappella has grown up to today’s level?
SZ: As the choir continued to develop and perfect itself, its repertoire has grown in complexity. This progress can be observed between 2013, when we performed "300 Years" (Триста лет), written by Aleksandr Kastalsky to mark the three-hundredth anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty, and 2015 when the choir performed the monumental oratorio, "Requiem for Fallen Brother"s (Братское поминовение), which Kastalsky also wrote, in memory of the victims of World War I. This work has been recorded on CD under Stuart’s direction. In 2016, Russkaya Cappella gave the Scottish premiere of Sviridov’s cantata, Kursk Songs (Курские песни). And finally, the choir has ascended yet further towards the heights of Russian choral music with our performance last week of Sergey Taneyev’s cantata, "John of Damascus" (Иоанн Дамаскин), composed in 1884. We are delighted to have grown sufficiently to present to our audiences such unique music that is rarely, if ever, performed in the UK. We are also very excited to announce that during our next concert season we shall be works based on Russian poetry written especially for our choir by local composers.
GL: That really does sound exciting. Would you have a last word maybe on the impact Russkaya Cappella has on its audience and members?
SZ: Russkaya Cappella is an international choir though British singers are, naturally, in the majority. We do have some members who call the distant corners of Europe and Asia home. Within the choir, we see people of very diverse nationalities and cultures being brought together through Russian music performed with unity of voice and spirit, with authentic interpretations of some of the very finest choral works Russia has to offer, and all of this for the delight our audiences.