As a novice opera aficionado, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Masterpieces of Russian Vocal Music: Famous Contemporaries, the Russian Chamber Art Society’s most recent offering at La Maison Francaise, the Embassy of France. This concert series is dedicated to Russian chamber vocal music, especially music rarely heard in the United States, and while I was looking forward to getting dressed up and experiencing something unusual, I truthfully didn’t know if I was in over my head. It turns out that the venue is the perfect way for a newcomer to immerse themselves in this much beloved art form and the evening, complete with wine and dessert and a chance to meet the artists, was one of the most enjoyable in recent memory.
The artists: L to R: Vera Danchenko-Stern, Azamat Sydykov, Emil Chudnovsky, Kevin Wetzel, and Inna Dukach. Photo courtesy of the Russian Chamber Art Society.
The Famous Contemporaries production featured Russian-American soprano Inna Dukach, whose beautiful voice perfectly matched the intense longing and sadness often present in the songs she performed. During the first half of the performance, she performed works by composer Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, with lyrics by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and presented the Washington area premiere of the Melodies Opus 16 song cycle with music by Alexander Tcherepnin and lyrics by Sergey Gorodetsky, which was a highlight of the entire performance. The text of song cycle, which was provided in English to all attendees, depicts a poet spending time at the seaside dreaming and communing with God, and the soothing music and beautiful lyrics combined joyfully into a relaxing and uplifting interlude during which I felt the stress of the week leave my body and was able to relax completely into the evening.
During the second half of the program, Ms. Dukach performed a variety of works with music by well-known composer Rachmaninov, including “How Fair this Spot” and another highlights of the show, “Oh, Do Not Sing for Me” during which she was accompanied by both piano, expertly played by Vera Danchenko-Stern, who is the Founder and Artistic Director of Russian Chamber Art Society and who also serves as Russian diction coach, and violinist Emil Chudnovsky, a highly accomplished musician who played with a grace and flourish that made him as nice to watch as he was to listen to.
In addition to the trio with Ms. Dukach, Mr. Chudnovsky and Ms. Danchenko -Stern performed two additional violin/piano duets, Romance for Violin and Piano Op. 3 by Gliere and Romance for Violin and Piano Op. 6, #1 by Rachmaninov, and both times I wished the music would go on much longer than the pieces allowed.
Baritone Kevin Wetzel’s strong interpretation of his repertoire including Medtner’s “I Have Outlived My Desires” and “To a Dreamer,” both with lyrics by Pushkin, in the first half of the show added to the show’s appeal, but it was in the second half of the show that Mr. Wetzel’s voice and stage presence really came alive. “Oh, Do Not Grieve” by Rachmaninov was particularly moving and I realized that I would probably have been able to guess at the emotional subtext of this song just from the performance even if I hadn’t had English language lyrics to guide me. Mr. Wetzel’s closing pieces, “When Yesterday We Met” and “Oh, Stay My Love, Forsake Me Not” brought an extra round of cheers from the audience.
Top L to R: Inna Dukach (Soprano), Kevin Wetzel (Baritone), and Emil Chudnovsky (Violin). Bottom L to R: Vera Danchenko-Stern (Piano) and Azamat Sydykov (Piano). Photo courtesy of the Russian Chamber Art Society.
Rounding out the performances was pianist Azamat Sydykov, whose playing brought an extra sensitivity and emotional layer to each piece and significantly added to the audience’s ability to let the music consume them. Mr. Sydykov’s considerable talent paired particularly well with Ms. Dukach’s on-stage presence and I could imagine that the two enjoyed their time working together.
With a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes (including intermission), novice opera fans will not be overwhelmed by the shear length of the program and the occasional commentary from the performers about the pieces they are about to present will help guide newcomers during the show so that they can even more easily feel they are seasoned fans. Similarly, the intimate setting helps the production feel friendlier and less intimidating than a full-scale opera might be, making the entire experience less of a performance and more of an evening spent with very talented friends.
For the price of admission, patrons will also be treated to wine and dessert, and a chance to mingle with the artists themselves, making a night out with the Russian Chamber Art Society feel like the perfect fancy night out. In fact, I might suggest that it makes for an unusual and surprising date night for about the same price as dinner and movie.
Andra Abramson, DCMetrotheraterarts
“You Cannot But Live and Love” with Masterpieces of Russian Chamber Music
The musical muses of Russia’s early 20th century converged one hundred years later in an memorable concert at La Maison Française Embassy of France, celebrating the music of three Russian composers who studied contemporaneously at the Moscow Conservatory of Music in the early 1900s.
The concert, entitled “Famous Contemporaries” presented by the Russian Chamber Arts Society, was a tribute to composers Reinhold Gliere, Nikolai Medtner, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who shared the distinction of studying with Sergei Taneyev, an accomplished musician in his own right and student of Tchaikovsky. The tribute also celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the Moscow Conservatory of Music.
In her customary way, the Russian Chamber Arts Society’s Artistic Director, Vera Danchenko-Stern, selected a program that excited the audience’s imagination, bringing to the stage soprano Inna Dukach, baritone Kevin Wetzel, pianist Azamat Sydykov and violinist Emil Chudnovsky. And of course, the evening was highlighted by the musical brilliance of pianist Vera Danchenko-Stern.
The concert opened with the music of a fourth Russian composer, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who is regarded as a link between Russian 19th century composers who championed a nationalist approach to Russian Music and the 20th century composers who, although loyal to their Russian identity, branched out into a broader and more eclectic style in their compositions.
Soprano Inna Dukach and pianist Azamat Sydykov, performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s “On Georgian Hills,” “Thou and You,” and “As Thinning Clouds Dissipate,” with lyrics by Pushkin, passionately capturing the power of love in dissipating sadness and grief. Dukach’s rich and radiant voice conveyed poet Pushkin’s words, “For my dark sadness is made light by you, by you alone, I am full of you.”
While Baritone Kevin Wetzel’s performance of songs by Gliere’s expressed the sorrowful character of “That is Why My Harp Hangs Silent” and “Raindrops Sadly Fall,” he was equally able to express the exuberance and joy in the song “I Want Fun,” with lyrics by the son of a former serf, Stepan Skitalets. Pianist Azamat Sydykov clearly delivered the essence of the Russian spirit with his beautiful accompaniment.
Gliere’s “Romance for Violin and Piano Opus 3” is often performed with an orchestra, but Violinist Emil Chudnovsky and Vera Danchenko-Stern were able to beautifully transmit the orchestral texture of the piece with their two instruments. Chudnovsky’s phrasing was passionate while Danchenko-Stern gave a intensely nuanced performance as an equal performance partner.
The RCAS presented a premier performance of “Melodies Op. 16” by a more contemporary composer, Alexander Tcherepnin, based on poetry by symbolist Gorodetsky. These series of songs written in Russia’s silver age, were born in a time of upheaval just after the Russian Revolution. Soprano Dukach commented that the work mirrors our present reality of extreme divisions, a sense of unreality and alternate facts.
She added that this “Russian symbolist movement played with the notion that reality could not be absolute… that beyond the appearances of the world, there was perhaps another mysterious and essential reality……And the search for meaning in a meaningless world came full circle back to the poet himself, sitting contemplating the world. You cannot but live and love.”
Taking a phrase from the third song of “Melodies” Dukach quoted, “I do not believe in gray-haired Fates! Every life has its own singular space. I myself crawl in earthly mosses or I glow brightly in the stars.” Pianist Sydykov was particularly effective in propelling the movement of the song cycle with the technically challenging trills in the third song and the beautiful sweeping melody of the fourth.
In continuing with its mission to perform art songs from the Russian repertoire before American audiences, the RCAS shined a light on the Russian aesthetic. The artists brought to life musical interpretations that were steeped in the traditions of the composers. Rachmaninoff once wrote, “I write the music which I hear playing inside me. I am a Russian composer therefore my temperament, outlook and music are quintessentially Russian.”
Indeed, the second half of the program was devoted to Rachmaninoff, whose music is distinguished by his use of impassioned melodies. He wrote about his approach to composing: “Melodic invention, in the proper meaning of the term, is the real aim of every composer. If he is incapable of inventing melodies that endure, his chances of mastering his material are very slender.”
To this point, Rachmaninoff’s gift to create simple melodies that make the heart swell with emotion was exquisitely shared by the performers. Gripping the audience with such beautiful songs as “How Fair This Spot,” sung by Inna Dukach and “Oh Do Not Grieve” sung by Kevin Wetzel, they provided a window into the Russian soul.
The piano, violin and voice rendition of “Oh Do Not Sing for Me” was performed by Dukach, Chudnovsky and Danchenko-Stern. According to Ms. Danchenko-Stern, it was composer/violinist Fritz Kreisler who at the spur of the moment, during a visit to one of Rachmaninov’s practice sessions of the song, improvised the violin section. Violinist Chudnovsky performed this version of the piece capturing its weeping character to great audience appeal. Mr. Chudnovsky performed with an assured ring of artistry.
The Rachmaninov Romances in this concert were written between 1890 through circa 1906 when Rachmaninov was quite young. Words are indeed elusive in describing the beauty of these songs. As Danchenko-Stern paraphrased Rachmaninov, “The music comes from the heart and goes to the heart.”
Ms. Duchenko-Stern is not only amongst the greats in her pianistic and interpretive abilities, but she is unquestionably one of the most generous in her desire to share the music of the Russian repertoire. She stated, “The more and more people are introduced to music as early as possible then the more wonderful will be our world we live in.” She added that music education has to be from kindergarten. “Kids are eager to learn, why not music.”
H and L Polgar, FestivalDC.com