March 14th 2014
By Stuart Campbell and Svetlana Zvereva
In August 2009 a group of people who enjoyed singing Russian music approached Svetlana Zvereva and Stuart Campbell seeking musical direction. Svetlana is a leading scholar in Russian Church music, with expertise in the medieval and modern periods, within Russia and the diaspora: she works for the State Institute for the Study of the Arts and teaches at the Royal Conservetoire of Scotland.
Stuart has also published books and articles about Russian music, and as Director of Music in Glasgow University Memorial Chapel from 1975 to 2000 has experience of working with choirs.
It was not without hesitation that Svetlana and Stuart accepted this challenge. The first cohort of what became Russkaya Cappella was made up of British people with a variety of strengths- in music, singing, and matters Russian. Could this diverse group form the nucleus of a viable choir? History has demonstrated that it could. The model has proved popular and it has not been altered radically so far. We have gradually added singers to reach our present strength of about 30, attracting in particular a growing number of Russians living in Scotland. As we sing almost everything in the original language (chiefly Russian or Church Slavonic), native speakers or second language users are very useful. Another aspect of the authenticity to which we aspire is that most of our singing is without instrumental support.
We give public concerts; we take part in community events (such as the Glasgow Russian School's Shrovetide celebrations or the commemoration of Patron, St Mungo. We sing each year in two Orthodox Liturgies; those for Christmas and Easter, and occasionally also for private functions.
Accordingly, we sing music of several kinds: compositions by Russia's classic composers, folksong, and Russian Orthodox Liturgical music from ancient to modern. Each programme has a thread running through it. For instance, in 2013 we marked the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. We sang the patriotic chorus (Slav'sya) from Glinka's Opera "A Life for the Tsar'. Nicholas II felt a special affection for Tchaikovsky's "Legend" (The young child Jesus had a garden), since the drops of blood caused by Christ's crown of thorns reminded the Tsar of his haemophiliac son, Aleksey, so it too found a place.
The "New Direction" in Church music taken by the Synod School in Moscow in the late Imperial period likewise enjoyed the Tsar's support and one of its leading champions was Kastalsky. For the dynastic celebrations in 1913 he wrote a piece entitled "Three Hundred Years" and we performed it - conceivably the first people to do so in a century. Rachmaninov's two Liturgical cycles also follow this "direction" and one movement figured in our Romanov Programme.
There is a boundless wealth of Russian music for choirs, so there is no problem finding a repertoire. Concerts devoted to a city, the seasons - whether of the year or the agricultural cycle, the Church calendar, the Poetry of a single Russian literary giant - who knows what strands might appear in future programmes of Russkaya Cappella?
We pay tribute to significant anniversaries: those of Grechaninov and the start of the First World War in 2014; that of Lermontov - after St Andrew, the pre-emminent symbol of the connection between Scotland and Russia - in the same year; the composer Sviridov in 2015.
Many of our concerts take place in churches. We have sung in several of central Scotland's historic churches (St Gile's Cathedral, Glasgow Cathedral, the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling) as well as more recent foundations (e.g. St Andrew's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Glasgow, the Romanian Orthodox Church in Shettleston). But as a choir we are not associated with any church or denomination; our singers as individuals are adherents of several denominations and none. Because the significance of church music in the history of Russian music, Orthodox music forms a large part of our repertoire.
We enjoy singing in secular buildings, and have appeared in the National Museum of Scotland (in conjunction with a Catherine the Great Exhibition drawn from the Hermitage) and in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
For a number of years we have had the signal honour of singing for the Russian Consul-General's Russia Day reception. We have contributed to Glasgow's West End Festival and the Paisley Choral Festival. We have sung for the Princess Dashkova Centre in the University of Edinburgh and the Centre for Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies in the University of Glasgow.
Under Svetlana Zvereva's direction a Children's Singing Studio has been established. The Studio is under the auspices
of Glasgow Russian Orthodox School and works in association with Russkaya Cappella, members of the senior group of children joining the grown ups in certain items in some concerts. A pool of young singers is being formed from which the adult choir can draw in the future. Even now, the junior artistes contribute on occasion a welcome additional element of action and drama, inclining towards dance, through folk rituals and processions, something Russkaya Cappella itself has not yet tackled.
When you consider the historical and geographical range of Russian Music for choirs, the spectrum extending from public magnificence and solemnity to exuberant vitality in a more intimate setting, and to the profoundly moving quality of much of the ecclesiastical music, maybe it's not surprising after all to discover it has so many devotees.