Recently, three members of the Orthodox male choir of the Australian Diocese of ROCOR visited Russia, where together with choristers from Russia, the USA, Canada and Serbia participated in the professional recording of spiritual chants. In addition to performances and recordings in Saratov, our choristers visited Moscow, where they, together with local spiritual choirs, performed in the most famous churches: the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin at the Patriarchal Service, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in the Danilov Monastery.
Returning home, inspired by an unusual and amazing journey, they shared their impressions with the editor of the Russian newspaper in Australia, Unication.
The conversation with Alexander Dmitriev and the regent of the male choir Nektariy Kotlyarov took place after the next Sunday service in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Sydney, and the third participant of the trip, tenor Grigory Scanlan from Brisbane, shared his impressions.
— Tell us how long your trip lasted, where you visited.
Nektariy Kotlyarov: Our trip was about three weeks. When we flew to Moscow, we immediately went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Last year I met the regent of this cathedral cathedral church, and he invited us to sing with them. On Saturday we sang at the liturgy in the main church, and on Sunday evening with the Patriarchal choir at the feast day of the Lower Transfiguration Church. After the service, we talked with the foreman of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior Fr. Mikhail Ryazantsev, and Patriarch Kirill blessed us.
Alexander Dmitriev: And on Sunday morning we still sang with the choir of Danilov Monastery. The regent of this choir, Georgy Safonov, is a longtime acquaintance of ours, he came to Australia and helped teach our singers.
— A very busy schedule!
Nektariy Kotlyarov: Then, by plane, we went to Saratov, where a professional recording of a disc with the choir of the Russian-American Musical Institute named after Patriarch Tikhon (PaTRAM) scheduled to be. We were warmly welcomed and rehearsals immediately began. They were very tense, we sang eight hours a day. The choir was led by Vladimir Gorbik, who is the regent of the Moscow Compound of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and one of the organizers of the PaTRAM Institute. When he invited me a few months before the recording, he asked me to bring the lowest bass and the highest tenor from Australia. Therefore, Alik Dmitriev and Grigory Scanlan went with me to Russia. For this recording, the conductor gathered 56 of the best male choristers from five countries performing Orthodox chants.
Alexander Dmitriev: On the eve of the recording, we had a one and a half hour concert at the Saratov Conservatory. It was on the third day of our joint performances.
Nektariy Kotlyarov: And the next day at seven o'clock in the morning the recording was already beginning, which continued with a break for two days. The record was recorded by a very famous sound engineer Blanton Alspo, his works received awards of the famous Grammy Awards about ten times. A couple of years ago, he recorded the PaTRAM choir and she was nominated for the Grammy Choral Art nomination. Now they are hoping to win this famous award. The Kursk Root Icon traveled with us, and our entire repertoire was dedicated to the Mother of God. We learned a lot during the preparation for the recording, and I already started using it during the rehearsals of our male choir.
After the recording was completed, we returned to Moscow, and George (Hera) Safonov invited us to the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin, where Patriarch Kirill served on the feast day. We thought we were just invited to watch and listen, but Hera said: "You - bass, baritone and tenor - take places in the choir." And, thank God, we sang the liturgy in the Patriarchal service, in the Assumption Cathedral of the Kremlin. My dream came true. What could be better and higher?
"Владимир Александрович Горбик во время обеда поблагодарил всех участников, а затем попросил меня встать и сказал, что русский мужской хор из Австралии, на его взгляд, «один из самых лучших православных хоров». Конечно, мы понимаем, что это во многом аванс, мы только новый хор, просто любители, но мы будем стараться подтвердить эти слова своими выступлениями в будущем". - Нектарий Котляров
Alexander Dmitriev: Then we went to St. Petersburg, it was just a tourist acquaintance with the city. There they met with a deacon in the Kazan Cathedral. In well-known temples, which are also museums, services are currently being held, in particular, in the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
— Tell us, what else do you remember about the people you met?
Alexander Dmitriev: I stood next to Alyosha Lukyanov in the choir, he is also a rear bass. Alexey is the organizer of this project and the main sponsor, founder of PaTRAM. He is from Florida, his father was a famous priest, Valery Lukyanov. I also met another counter-bass Vyacheslav Prudsky from Yekaterinburg. Many choristers from Russia also perform in opera.
Nektary Kotlyarov: Ten counter-basses, the lowest voices, and octavists, as they are also called, gathered in the choir. These are the best octavists in the world, all famous. A singer from the Kuban Cossack Choir also sang with us. We met a lot of friends. When they learned that the counter-bass, singing in Russian, came from Australia, they asked a lot of questions. Australians for them is something unusual, new. We got to know Vladimir Gorbik closer. I will work to invite him to us, to work out with our male choir. We also dream in the future to invite a sound engineer to record our choir professionally.
— What is your impression after the performance in the Kremlin Cathedral?
Alexander Dmitriev: So much of Russia's history is associated with the Assumption Cathedral. This is an ancient temple of the 15th century, the burial place of almost all the ancient Russian patriarchs. And there is great acoustics. We tried, it was necessary not only well, but also to sing everything for sure.
Nectariy Kotlyarov: The Assumption Cathedral was the main cathedral of Russian Orthodoxy. We could not believe that we were performing in such a historic temple!
— What else is remembered about the trip?
Alexander Dmitriev: The day of the concert was my birthday. And after that they brought me a cake and sang “Much Summer”. It was nice, and I will never forget it.
Nektariy Kotlyarov: I remember how, after the liturgy in Saratov, Vladimir Gorbik thanked all the participants during dinner, and then asked me to stand up and said that the Russian male choir from Australia, in his opinion, was “one of the best Orthodox choirs.” Of course, we understand that this is largely an advance, we are only a new choir, just amateurs, but we will try to confirm these words with our performances in the future.
— Do you think you will have such professional trips to Russia ahead?
Nektariy Kotlyarov: We have many new opportunities. Our choir was invited to participate in the popular Easter choral festival in Russia. Choirs from the Sretensky Monastery, from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and other famous choirs are singing there.
— Did you manage to see Russian cities?
Alexander Dmitriev: Saratov is a beautiful city, we sailed on the ship along the Volga. Moscow was beautifully decorated, it is a pity we could not get to Red Square - at this time they were preparing for the Spasskaya Tower festival.
Nektariy Kotlyarov: The people we met in Moscow and Petersburg were very hospitable. It was a very pleasant trip. Now we hope to go again with all our choir and we want to invite famous choirs from Russia to come to us in Australia.
I was fortunate enough to have two excellent wingmen on my first journey into the heart of Russia; Nektari Kotlaroff, an extremely well-connected and driven young individual who is mature well beyond his age, and Alex Dimitrieff, the most organised, experienced and professional traveller I have ever known. I on the other hand felt like a wandering fool with a fine voice. Other than being bilingual, I was ill-equipped for my first experience in what I realised quickly is in fact the most beautiful, exotic, enchanting and wondrous country in the world. I have actually travelled (long ago) to Eastern and Western Europe and more recently to France and Poland with the National Russian Orthodox Choir (who won competitions there in both 2014 and 2016). I have also been to Vanuatu, Hong Kong, New Zealand and many parts of beautiful Australia, however Russia is completely something else altogether. The place is electric with life, passion and technology, but it is also enigmatically mysterious, spiritual and ancient. It is at all times wondrous and enveloping. It is true to say that I fell in love with Russia, and that was after less than 3 weeks in only Moscow, St Petersburg and Saratov.
Doors opened everywhere for us popular Australians in Russia. The most common question asked of us was ‘how and why do you even speak Russian when you live in Australia, an English speaking continent?’. This was often followed by ‘how is it that you have the heart and spirit of a Russian and yet you are Australian?’. The answer to the first question is simple. My mother (and the Malisheff family, led by my Grandfather Archpriest Gregory Malisheff) fled communism in the 1950’s, leaving Harbin for the hope of a better life in Australia. The Russian heart is strong, so the Orthodox faith survives and the culture lives on, and Australia is a country which celebrates its diversity. Ethnicity is at home in Australia! The answer to the second question, well whilst my father may be Australian, our family is matriarchal and my mother made sure her children would learn Russian language and culture and retain our Orthodox faith (as my wife and I do with our own children’.
Some extraordinary highlights include an invitation by Gera Safonov (the choir director of Danilov Monastery choir) to sing with them in a liturgical service. We then enjoyed a long chat and lunch with Gera himself and were invited to potentially sing with the Danilov Performance Choir (a special set of expert singers from within the Danilov ensemble) in the Patriarchal Liturgy in the Kremlin, upon our return to Moscow after the recording project was completed. This was a truly amazing opportunity, to trust 3 Australian Orthodox singers at such a high-level, to perform and sing within the Danilov specialist group right before the Patriarch ! Another amazing opportunity was an invitation by Ilya Borisovich (the choir conductor of Christ the Saviour Cathedral) to rehearse with his choir and sing in their Vigil and Liturgy in the Cathedral. This was an incredible experience, as each of his choristers is individually world-class. To then be invited to sing with the choir in the Nizhni Hram (Church beneath Christ the Saviour Cathedral) for their Prestolni Prazdnik was just amazing. The repertoire was incredible and the event a memory I will always hold dear. I thank these wonderful conductors for the opportunities they provided us and the faith and trust they placed in us to sing in full voice right beside their choristers.
Moving on to the rehearsal and recording sessions in Saratov, I can honestly say, in my 25 years singing professionally within the choral and opera space, I have never worked so hard ! Maestro Vladimir Gorbik is a very demanding individual, profoundly gifted and singularly focused on the task. He extracts the absolute best out of each and every chorister. I found myself singing at an entirely new level. The rehearsal and recording sessions were long and gruelling (8 hours a day, each day), incredibly challenging vocally and professionally. Everyone maintained their composure and protected their instrument as this would be necessary in order to achieve our goal. I was singing high C’s, C#’s and open D’s (high even for a high tenor). More challenging still was singing these notes, both high and low, pianissimo and then quadruple forte within the same composition ! The music was emotionally, spiritually and professionally draining, but worth every second of the effort contributed. The ultimate goal was perfection and I believe this combination of 54 of the world’s best Russian Orthodox Male singers did in fact achieve this. Time will tell when the editing is complete and the finished product made available for purchase or download, however I am quite sure, based on what I heard and the discussions we had with the management team, that this is a true winner !
A final highlight (other than meeting, getting to know and socialising with the wonderful members of the choir from 5 different nations and 3 continents around the world) was the amazing concert we performed to a grossly oversold event in Saratov. Something like 1000 people attended to hear us perform this marathon repertoire without even a break. Initially an intermission was intended however became impossible due to safety concerns for the sheer number of faithful who had attended to bear witness to the miraculous Kursk Icon of the Mother of God, to whom we were dedicating our song, and to hear us sing. This was a true highlight for me personally. I recall, after almost 2 hours on my feet, singing 90 minutes of emotionally and spiritually charged repertoire, we finished with the Troparion to the Kursk Icon whilst the Metropolitan Blessed the audience who all stood in a progressive wave venerating the Icon. I am sure every single chorister was crying from the emotion and intensity of the moment during the singing of this Tropar, not just because we were all exhausted, but because we simultaneously realised that the Mother of God herself had literally powered us through this project and the material. I have never seen so many faithful Christians in one place, share their respect and veneration as one. This was a perfect moment for me.
To summarise my experience abroad, I will always remember from my trip the wonder of Russia itself, its beautiful and accepting people, the like-mindedness of my musical comrades, the amazing singing opportunities in extraordinary locations and with gifted peers, and ultimately, rehearsing and recording the most amazing and complex Orthodox musical repertoire managed by an extraordinary conductor (Maestro Vladimir Gorbik) and music recording specialists (Blanton from Sound-Mirror). I Thank God for this incredible opportunity afforded me, the wonderful support I experienced, the valuable relationships forged and this unforgettable chance to be a part of something so much larger and more significant than just singing; to Glorify God in song, and for this to be recorded so that I can share with my children (and one day god-willing theirs) that I was a part of history in the making.
— I know, this year your choir will have a trip to the USA?
Nektariy Kotlyarov: A choir of 18 people travels to America in December. We continue to raise funds and in November or early December we plan to give another concert in Sydney, where we will perform Russian folk songs.
— We wish good luck to your male choir. In just six months since its inception, much has been achieved, we hope for further success in the USA, Russia and, of course, we are waiting for new choir concerts in Australia.