By Lawrence Budmen

The majesty of the Russian Orthodox Church took flight in sight and sound - m agnificent cathedrals and glowing polyphonic chant were symbols of the faith’s vibrant culture. The church’ s musical heritage was relegated to the history books during the long political rein of the Soviet Union. With the fall of Communism, musicians and scholars have rediscovered the magnificent music that the church nurtured from the 15th century through Russia’s westernization under Peter the Great.

In 1985 Anatoly Grindenko founded the Russian Patriarchate Choir of Moscow to disseminate the church’s rich cultural history. On Thursday Grindenko brought his monastery choir to Miami’s Carnival Center for an extraordinary demonstration of the Eastern male choral tradition. Although the program listed twelve choir members (all Russian Orthodox monks), only ten took the stage of the Knight Concert Hall. 

The church’s earliest music bares little resemblance to Western models. Preserved in primitive notation, these liturgical works do not contain specific instructions about pitch or rhythm. Inevitably, the performers become part of the creative process. 

The music abounds in originality. From the rousing Call to Worship to the wild melismatic intervals of a 17th century setting of Psalm 103, a rare treasure trove of sacred music has been unearthed. The tonal ambiguity and dissonance of a 17th century Eucharistic Canon suggests the roots of atonality, centuries before Schoenberg or Charles Ives. 

Te Deum Laudamus by Dimitry Bortniansky, Court composer to Catherine the Great, moved the concert to the dawn of the 19th century and a different musical aesthetic. Educated in Europe, Bortniansky created a spirited, neo-Mozartean motet based on Western models.

Grindenko, a former string player who specialized in such avant garde masters as Luciano Berio and Gyorgy Ligeti, has honed his choir into a precision instrument, achieving perfect balance and subtle dynamic variations. 

Two excerpts from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers opened the concert’s second part. The austere, modal harmonies and dark textures of this score are light years away from the extravagant romanticism of the composer’s instrumental works. 

The declamatory Augmented Litany by Alexandre Gretchaninoff spotlighted the superb low register and rich timbre of Deacon Oleg Kovalev, a deep Slavic bass in the tradition of Boris Christoff and Ivan Petrov. Before Thy Cross We Bow Down by Peter Goncharov was a cry from the heart, imbued with vociferous emotion by the singers.

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