October 2, 2015 - Tenth anniversary Gala, the Embassy of Austria, Washington, DC

RCAS Celebrates 10 years, Bringing Russian Chamber Music to Life in DC

“Bravissimo” to the Russian Chamber Art Society. Their tenth anniversary Gala concert celebration at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. not only showcased their tenth year of the best in Russian Art Song and instrumental performances, but was also a celebration of the great cultural ties between the U.S. and Russia that have transcended political barriers that may exist between our two countries.
 
In his introductory remarks, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Head of the U.S.-Russia Foundation, Hon. John Beyrle, reflected on the  “special relationship [between the US and Russia] that needs to be nurtured and needs to be celebrated. It is doubly important at times in US and Russia political relations when the governments find it hard to find common language. The fact that the cultural language that Americans and Russians speak, have always spoken and will always speak without the need of government support, speaks volumes of what we and Russia share.”
 
Before a capacity filled audience, RCAS Founder and Artistic Director Vera Danchenko-Stern led the ensemble with her virtuosic piano accompaniment of  rarely heard Russian Art Songs of the 19th and 20th century featuring soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor, tenor Nils Neubert, baritone Timothy Mix and bass Grigory Soloviov.
 
Enriching the programming, the RCAS included the performances of the brilliant instrumentalists, violinist Victor Danchenko, clarinetist Julian Milkis, Tamara Volskaya on the domra and Anatoly Trofimov on the bayan, also performing music by Russian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
 
The ensemble quality and the exciting programming of the RCAS improves with age like rare vintages. With the choice of new as well as recurring performers, Vera Danchenko-Stern’s artistry and personality has given the group its ensemble quality.  
 
The RCAS has already made a significant contribution in leading a revival of the Russian Art Song which has been overshadowed for decades by the famous large symphonic and operatic works of such great Russian composers as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and others. The RCAS has brought to new audiences the Russian Art Song “Romances” that have charmed music lovers for centuries.
 
The music included in the programming finds its origins in the Bel Canto Italian song tradition which was initially embraced by the Russian composer M.I. Glinka (1804-1857) who traveled to Italy and was influenced by composers Bellini and Donizetti. Germinating from Glinka, the composer Alexander Dargomizhsky wrote over 100 romances in the genre of the Russian Art Song, and the tradition continued with the music of the new nationalist composers led by Mily Balakirev and including such composers as Rimsky Korsakov and Modest Musorgsky.
 
Timothy Mix, baritone, who has frequently performed with the Ensemble, was asked to comment on his collaboration and tutelage with Vera Danchenko-Stern in studying the Russian Art Song repertoire. He drew the analogy by singing a parody on “The Impossible Dream” by Mitch Leigh (of Ukraine descent) to describe the difficulty of learning the repertoire in Russian, and coping with the cyrillic alphabet. His rich baritone voice set the tone for what was to come.
 
Bass Grigory Soloviov opened the program with songs by S. Rachmaninoff and M. Mussorgsky. He communicated the Bel Canto style with its florid passages and legato phrasing. As the winner of the Rising Star prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition, he indeed is a performer with a powerful stage presence. He sang three songs with a beautiful dramatic bass tone: “I Came to Her” and “No Prophet” by Rachmaninoff, and the highly comical “Song of the Flea” by Mussorgsky, demonstrating his naturalness as a performer.
 
Mezzo soprano Magdalena Wor, a Metropolitan Opera Competition Finalist, sang a work by Tchaikovsky, “Delirious nights;” “The Fountain”” by S. Rachmaninoff, and “Forgive Me” by the contemporary composer V. Gavrilin. Ms. Magdalena Wor’s supple and liberating singing style, was very effective in conveying the Bel Canto character.
 
Victor Danchenko, a distinguished violinist faculty member of the Curtis Institute and Peabody School of Music, captivated the audience in an ensemble performance with his sister Mme. Danchenko-Stern of Tchaikovsky’s “Melancholy Serenade,” and R. Shchedrin’s “In the Style of Albeniz.” Their sinuous performance was the apotheosis of ensemble playing.
 
A work that embraces the essence of the Bel Canto style, “Fearful Minute” with music and lyrics by Tchaikovsky, is a love song that was performed beautifully by tenor Nils Neubert. It tells the story of where a love affair may lead: “I await your verdict, your sentence – whether you will stab my heart” ….. “You sigh, tremble and weep – can words of love not come across your lips, or do you not love me?” With Nils Neubert’s passionate tenor voice, the classic romance work came to life. Neubert also performed Rachmaninoff’s “The Answer” and “I Wait for Thee.”
 
Soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, who has performed with numerous opera companies, including the Met in New York, performed three works, the “Nymph” by Rimsky-Korsakov, “How Fair this Spot” by Rachmaninoff,” and “Whether Day Reigns” by Tchaikovsky. Casey Cabot’s enrapturing lyrical and dramatic musical personality captured the Bel Canto style of vocal singing.
 
The anniversary concert gala offered a unique opportunity to the audience to hear the internationally known “Russian Duo” of Tamara Volskaya (domra) and Anatoly Trofimov (bayan). Their finale performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” was a showcase for their virtuosity and exquisite artistry which “brought the house down.”
 
Clarinetist Julian Milkis, a frequent and remarkable artist with the RCAS, performed the Washington DC premiere of Alexey Shor’s “Verdiana.” As the only remaining student of Benny Goodman, his career as a soloist, chamber musician and jazz clarinetist, reflects his brilliance and virtuosity, as evidenced in this concert’s performance accompanied by Vera Danchenko-Stern.
                                            
The final but no less beautiful performance of the evening was presented by baritone Timothy Mix, a recipient of the New York City Opera’s Christopher Keene Award. In his return to the RCAS stage, he performed S. Rachmaninoff’s “Oh Stay My Love Forsake Me Not,” and “On Golden Meadows” by Tchaikovsky. He completed his group with three selections by the contemporary composer G. Svridov in what was a fitting passionate ending to the evening.
 
Mr. John Hauge, President of the RCAS, gave special thanks to the RCAS’ many supporters, including Susan Carmel Lehrman of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History, Dr. Dan Davidson of the American Councils for International Education and those in attendance who made the event possible.
 
Remarkable to note during the evening, was the large number of young music enthusiasts who attended the Gala performance. It augurs well for the RCAS that the revival of the Russian Bel Canto music has also brought a young generation of music lovers who appreciate the beauty of the genre. A young 14 year old attendee, Micaela Leroux-Burch, was thrilled that her mother and grandmother brought her to hear the concert. “I love to hear how they express themselves with such passion.” She added, “I feel more connected to the music than just listening to it on the radio.”
 
And it is that connection to music that brought the audience together. In the words of the Austrian Embassy’s Cultural Attache and Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, Mr. Andreas Pawlitschek, “Music unites.” 
                                        
Dr. Anton Fedyashin, director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History, captured the feeling for the evening with these words, “Tonight, as we listen to this great music, I ask you to reflect about Tchaikovsky and about many other Russian composers who have had a great influence on American life, but also on American composers who especially with Jazz have had an enormous influence on soviet culture.”
H and L Polgar, FestivalDc.com

The Russian Chamber Art Society Hosts Its 10th Anniversary Concert at the Austrian Embassy

Mainstream classical music commentary in Washington often complains about an over-reliance on the symphonies and concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff for the programming at the area’s major orchestras.

But the American ear loves the Russian sound. That’s one of the ironies of the frequent geopolitical struggles between the two nations. If it’s really a problem that big Russian music carries the freight for the region’s musical establishment, maybe the issue isn’t the popularity of the Russian composers, it’s the lack of exploration of their total work.

Problem solved: For that we have the Russian Chamber Art Society (RCAS), a unique institution not only here in Washington but possibly in all of America. The RCAS brings the amazing richness of the vocal music of the 19th century giant Tchaikovsky and the 20th century colossus (and Russian émigré to America) Sergei Rachmaninoff right to the capital city. The Society attracts top talent from a fascinating mix of Russian-born artists, other artists with roots in Slavic and Eastern European cultures, and native-born Americans who’ve made Russian vocal and chamber music their core repertoire.

All this was on display last Friday evening, October 2, 2015, as the RCAS celebrated its 10th anniversary with a gala concert at the Austrian Embassy. The embarrassment of musical riches started with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and moved onto such notable composers as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and others.

For me, three singers and one instrumental act stood out from the exceptional group of performers, although each of the 250 or more attendees in the festive crowd probably could name a different group and not be wrong at all.

I was first and foremost taken by the personally distinctive and attention-grabbing American baritone Timothy Mix as the closing act of the entire evening. Soon to appear in Albuquerque in Verdi’s Aida as the enemy king who is also the father of the heroine, Mr. Mix started with an arresting performance of an early Rachmaninoff song called “Oh Stay My Love, Forsake Me Not!”

His follow-up Tchaikovsky song, “On Golden Meadows Now,” has a strong tinge of emotional drama that goes beyond the vanilla-sounding title of the song in English translation, especially in Mr. Mix’s voice. That’s one of the reasons that hearing these songs in their original Russian is so meaningful. The Society handed out translations of everything, but the experience in the moment was best without consulting the translations, which served best as references later on.

Mr. Mix closed with a selection from a song cycle called Russia Cast Adrift by composer Georgy Sviridov, whose lifetime (1915-1998) almost exactly matched the period of the Soviet Union. The complexity of the Russian soul juxtaposed with its fate among nations is captured in this kind of music almost better than anywhere else.

Earlier in the evening, the crowd heard from a frequent visitor to the Washington area, as Atlanta-based mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor sang three selections that matched her unique vocal timbre and dramatic skills. Rachmaninoff’s “The Fountain” painted the picture suggested by its title, with sung octaves and dynamic variations interplaying with waterfall-like arpeggios in the piano. A lovely ballad by composer Valery Gavrilin called “Forgive Me” was unmistakably tinged with Eastern European modalities, and Ms. Wor’s Polish-American identity – she grew up in a small town in southern Poland and moved to America at age 11 – absolutely informed the interpretation. It didn’t hurt that “Forgive Me” accesses Ms. Wor’s remarkably plush and wine-colored lower range as well as jumps to her relatively top range for a mezzo.

A Tchaikovsky song called “Delirious Nights” completed Ms. Wor’s set. She performs twice later this season with the National Philharmonic at The Music Center at Strathmore, first in February in Vivaldi’s Gloria and then in April for Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass.

Russian bass Grigory Soloviov sang selections from Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. The most striking was a song called “No Prophet I” that showed off Mr. Soloviov’s gratifyingly even tone for a bass, lending the higher parts of this Rachmaninoff song a pleasing heft from his strong voice. “No Prophet I” has a quasi-religious, humble but positive and hopeful air. It’s significant that it dates from 1902, the year after Rachmaninoff’s major triumphs with his Piano Concerto No. 2 and his Sonata for Cello and Piano, both of which have – quite justifiably – figured in recent area performances and recordings by Washington-based artists.

The instrumental act of the night was an ultra-entertaining pair that was familiar to some of the audience but new to me: Tamara Volskaya on the “domra” (a type of lute) and Anatoly Trofimov on the “bayan” (an accordion with a few extra bells and whistles). Within their set was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, but not as you’ve heard it before. Ms. Volskaya navigates tiny spaces between the plucked strings of her instrument and finger-runs along its neck to produce intricate (and in this case humorous) counter-lines, while Mr. Trofimov plays his accordion-like instrument less like an oom-pah machine and more like a virtuoso pianist. I’d tell you to hire these folks for your next wedding, retreat, festive wake, or bar mitzvah, but they’re going to steal the show from the guest(s) of honor, so beware!

Everyone who knows the Russian Chamber Art Society will immediately associate it with its founder, leader and champion – Vera Danchenko-Stern. She is an evangelist in the best sense of the term. Her personality overflows the performances right from the piano (where she accompanies everything that requires a pianist) and she’ll want to grab you by the arm whether you’re part of the show, someone in the diplomatic community, somebody from another musical circle, or best of all simply an audience member.

Several of the performers I talked to said they were there largely because of Ms. Danchenko-Stern, who not only promotes Russian chamber music and song, but digs in to help the artists make their best selections and perform at a peak level. The next RCAS event is a “Tribute to Shostakovich” on December 4, 2015, with some of the same performers returning, including Magdalena Wor.

David Rohde, DCmetrotheaterarts