Interview with Vladimir Gorbik

By Fr. Patrick O'Rourke on August 1, 2012

Late in June, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary held a Master Class taught by Russian choral composer and conductor Vladimir Alexandrovich Gorbik. The seminary published an interview with Gorbik which will be of special interest to our readers. In it, Gorbik reflects on the Master Class and its students, as well as providing some insights on the future of Orthodox music in America. The interview has been reproduced in its entirety below.

Vladimir Gorbik conducting a choir of students during his Master Class at St. Vlad’s.

26 June 2012

Interview with Vladimir Aleksandrovich Gorbik

By Deborah (Malacky) Belonick   

1. [SVOTS] You have mentioned that the participants in the choral workshop and Master Class are respectful, warmly receptive, and willing and eager to receive instruction and to take direction from you. Was this surprising to you? Were you perhaps anticipating some other experience with Orthodox Christian church choir conductors and singers in the United States?

[VG] Before I came here [to the U.S.], my friends told me that Americans were very laid back and liked to relax a lot. I wondered how, then, could I carry on a Master Class here at St. Vladimir’s, when I’m known to be a strict conductor, a tough and demanding conductor? I wondered how this class was going to go, considering my friends’ opinions. But when I crossed the threshold of the seminary, the first thing I observed was not just respect but also a direct and open childlike love of one person for another, which people in Russia are longing for (currently, Russia is a very difficult and complex place in which to live). I saw the love people had for one another, and I was very much struck by it. This was my first impression.

My next [striking] impression came during my first encounter with the actual singers and directors. These workshop participants had a tremendous willingness to work hard, as well as a deep faith in God; in particular, a willingness and ability to listen to me without hesitation to fulfill what I was requesting of them.

It’s not that I don’t receive this [same willingness and ability] in Russia; people there work with me, of course, but they smile a lot less than they do here! Today, for example, we had 8 hours of rehearsal, a full workday; when I go back to Russia, I’ll say: “Have you ever seen people who would spend an entire 8-hour workday singing?” Maybe I’m a little uncertain as to how much other people work—who, what, how, and where—but I would imagine that an 8-hour choir rehearsal might qualify for a Guinness World Record!

Additionally, participants were not toiling in a slip-shod manner. What usually happens [during a Master Class] is in accordance with a schedule that includes work time, interspersed with time to relax. But here, today, hourly, the participants acted like a band of Christian warriors! They delved deeper and deeper into the material presented, and there existed a very interesting, healthy competition among the singers, as they observed each other; each person was trying not to fall short [of my expectations]. In the final analysis, the singers and conductors, right up to the “eighth hour,” became increasingly more involved. I did not in any way expect this. I thought at first that the most I could accomplish [the first day] would be to decide simply who would be in the main choir and who would be in the chamber ensemble.

When we [Vladimir Morosan and I] discussed this workshop a half year ago, I then expressed my concern that the singers would not be able to manage the vast amount of material we would need to cover and master within three days: 243 pages of music, in small print! It seemed a nearly unrealistic situation. But, we Russians have a saying, an observation that applies [in this case]: “Bumblebees should not be able to fly; their bodies are large but they have small wings. Still, for some reason, bumblebees do fly, as God intends!” Analogously, the “big bumblebee” is the repertoire that the participants in the choir must master; the “wings” are the three days we have set aside to accomplish this. Somehow, we have to get this “bumblebee” to fly! Any musician might observe that this amount of material could never be sung in such a short time. Nevertheless, today, I came to the conclusion that such an accomplishment is possible: the bumblebee will fly!

2. [SVOTS] During your instruction to the participants, are you observing any noticeable and/or frequently employed methods that would distinguish church choral conducting in the U.S. from that of Russia? Especially do you notice any striking distinction because Orthodox Christian music has been translated and set, using the English language?

[VG] As to methodology, I certainly observed a great deal of similarity between what Americans and Russians do, in terms of church choir directing in particular, but there are certain distinctions. Because [Orthodox Christian] culture has no extended history in America, this has had some influence on conducting techniques [in this country]. Normally, I like to observe [in a student conductor] some type of “individuality,” even if a student doesn’t approach or interpret the music as I would; this would be a manifestation of their professional freedom.

[As to the similarities] they are founded upon the fact that we are all believers, and since it is our faith that unites us, it seems that in a given situation, it is the Lord himself who helps solve a particular problem in a given complex [musical] circumstance—if, for example, a person turns toward God and utters “Lord, help me.” In my experience when a person humbles himself with such thoughts, what ensues can be quite surprising; there’s a kind of miracle that occurs: you expect one thing, but what you receive is “one hundred-fold.”

Your question about language and music is an interesting one. Say, for example, Russian musicians wanted to take a work conceived in another language, an opera by Wagner, for example, and perform it in the Russian language. If those adapting the music to the language are not expert composers and musicians, they might be afraid to alter the music in any way and thus become “slaves” to the notes. In setting their native language to that music, they might make the text uninteresting and unexpressive; what is produced, then, is rather crude.

On the other hand, when competent musicians or composers adapt musical compositions, they work to achieve a unity of text and music in a highly intelligent fashion, without becoming slaves to musical constructions. They approach the question of rhythmic structure very subtly, and in essence create in some respects a “new” composition, but one based on the original music itself; they arrange a setting to a very thoughtful and adequate translation of the text. I’m speaking here of the works of Vladimir Morosan and some others, whose adaptations we are singing in the Master Class. In these adaptations, a very remarkable thing happens: the original music does not lose its originality in order to accommodate the English text but reflects the melody and harmony to their maximum extent; that is because the task [of translation and adaptation] is being approached with knowledge of the language and sensitivity to musical matters.

Let me give an example, using the hymn “Vouchsafe, O Lord,” [a setting of the Kievan Caves Monastery Melody, as adapted by Walter G. Obleschuk]. Today I worked on this hymn in rehearsal, performing it in English; but [as I conducted], the thought that I was performing it in English was dissipated by the fact that I “sensed” I was singing it in Slavonic! As the music was being sung in English, I was mostly conducting, and I started singing the melody quietly to myself church Slavonic, and it wound up that there was a great deal of correspondence [between the English and Slavonic-language hymns].

This is a quite a miraculous thing, and it is possible only in the realm of music. A Rembrandt copy would be quite a bit removed from the original; the artist would not be able to surpass the genius of the original. But in music, it becomes possible to re-create a work in another language.

To give a more complex example, for the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul this week we will sing a set of hymns [stichera] “What Garlands of Praise,” based on an ancient Znamenny pattern melody [podoben]. We will sing the words in English and understand their meaning; [at the same time] I will “hear” the words in Slavonic, even though the rhythmic structure is different. This is how, being a Russian musician, I am actually able to conduct these hymns in English. The words don’t interfere, they just “happen” naturally, forming an entity so closely identified with the original, that I am able to hear the melody in Slavonic while singing it in English.

So, there is an “identity.” I’m able to hear the melody in Slavonic while singing it in English! These three elements—melody, English, and Slavonic—are united in the [musical] settings that we are singing this week; there are three congruencies, and I say this as a “scientific” observation.

3. [SVOTS] You direct the choir at the Metochion (Podvorye) of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, which is the Moscow Representation of the most important Orthodox monastery and spiritual center in Russia. When you agreed to conduct this Master Class on our campus, and after arrangements had been made, what did you most particularly look forward to sharing with Orthodox Christians who would come to this workshop?

[VG] My main objective was to impart the traditions of Russian Orthodox church singing. In the rehearsal we just had, I talked about Russian folk, or lyrical singing—that is, lullabies, epic poems, laments, ballads—and their relationship to sacred music as prototypes; in particular, I talked about the melody of a particular Znamenny chant, “Mercy of Peace,” arranged by Kovalevsky. By associating the story I told about [Russian folk] lyrical singing [with sacred music], workshop participants began to sing completely differently.

Monks have identified prayer as a cry or lament of the heart—in particular the words of prayer; music has the ability to focus the movements of the soul and to generate heartfelt attention in a manner that causes a person to become fully centered on the words of prayer, rather than squandering spiritual energy in scattered, unrelated thoughts. Very important to church singing is this execution and performance of a “common” spiritual work.

It is important to remind church singers about these ideas, because very often they focus their attention on purely musical matters: how to sing a note clearly; how to make one’s voice sound beautiful. All these components of musical professional craft can serve to distract them from prayer. [On the other hand] Znamenny chant has a particular inner strength and ability to bring the mind and the heart into unity, to enable one to become fully immersed in the words of prayer. If this were not so, we would not encounter instances in which both the priest and singers weep during worship.

4. [SVOTS] What will be your new position at Moscow Conservatory of Music, your alma mater? What do most look forward to there?

[VG] I have been offered a position [September 1, 2012] to teach choral conducting at the Moscow Conservatory, teaching both secular and sacred music. In a conversation with Metropolitan Longin of Saratov and Volsk, he literally said to me: “In the Conducting Department [at the conservatory] we should have a special course of church choral conducting, a special division for those students who wish to study and conduct church music.” When I mentioned this to the current dean of the Conducting Department [Professor Stanislav Kalinin, an Orthodox Christian], which has both orchestral and choral divisions, he said, “We’re moving in that direction, but right now, this cannot be rushed.”

In 2011, for the first time in nearly 100 years, a molieben [service of blessing] was held at the conservatory, at the beginning of the academic year; Archimandrite Dionisiy, the current rector of the Metochion, presided, in the Rachmaninoff Hall of the conservatory. Close to 100 students were there, holding candles. Professor Kalinin asked me to lead this huge choir in prayer; we also brought singers from the Metochion, who sang antiphonally with the student choir. At one point, Fr. Dionisiy started to bless [the crowd] with holy water, and Professor Kalinin said out loud, “Bless us, so that our minds might become properly aligned, and clearer.” At the end of the service, after some of the professors had spoken, we all agreed that a remarkable event had just occurred at the Moscow Conservatory, since it is essentially a secular institution.

Prior to my trip here, several professors of the Conducting Department asked if, upon my return, I would relate my experiences during this Master Class to the entire department, which is what I plan to do.

5. [SVOTS] Here’s a touchy question: In a typical parish, one does not often find the singers necessary to make up a church choir; many times choir members are volunteers who may not be able to read music, reproduce a tone, or follow a director, even though they love to sing and faithfully attend services. Sometimes the choir director is ill trained but good hearted. What, in those cases, might be done to make the services as beautiful as possible? Do you have any practical suggestions?

[VG] In such a parish, it is essential to have at least one qualified, trained musician; otherwise, it’s next to impossible to create well-appointed church singing. This person must be able to assume the position of the choir director and to teach the singers how to sing. I have just described the situation at the Metochion, when I first arrived there to become the choir director! Not long after my arrival there, the people of that parish addressed the rector saying, “We would like to sing, but we don’t know how!” So nine years ago, in response [to this plea], we assembled an amateur men’s choir, united by a common goal: the desire to sing to God, and the desire to learn music.

As time went on, we formed a choir of boys and a choir of girls, an amateur choir that includes women’s voices, and a monastic choir, as well as a team of teachers, who help me teach various musical subjects to the parishioners of the Metochion:

Vocal technique
Music theory

Thus, these people receive a thorough education in music. I have several assistant conductors who direct at the services and rehearse the choir. At festal services the amateur choir [rehearsed by my assistant] joins the professional choir. In accordance with my vision, the amateur men’s choir has become a “feeder” group in relation to the professional choir. Today, the professional choir is composed of former amateurs (almost half!) who in the course of several years became qualified musicians and sing in professional manner. On this trip to your seminary, I have brought with me two of them: one bass and one tenor, as well as two women singers from the amateur choir.

Thus we have developed a model that can help others accomplish the same. We set out on this path in order to fulfill the desires of the parishioners [of the Metochion], who wanted to serve the church through their singing. We’ve tried to give them that training. In the last several years I have not taken a single conservatory student into the choir; but rather, I give priority to the amateur choir-in-training. These amateurs have grown so much that they now sing patriarchal services in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Dormition! These geographers, surgeons, business people never imagined that they would join such a prestigious patriarchal choir, or that they would be among the select few that I’ve brought to America. One of my women singers said to me: “I cannot express how grateful I am that you have brought me here [to the Master Class]. I’m gaining so much, and with every passing minute I am enjoying it more and more.”

But [getting back to your original question], what if there are no such musicians in the parish? One of the purposes of this Master Class is to train conductors, so that they will find their way into such parishes [in need].

6. [SVOTS] Sometimes we Orthodox Christians in the U.S., express our desire for more “American-sounding” yet still sacred and profound liturgical music. Do you have any thoughts on how a particular culture, new to Orthodoxy, might create (newly compose) church music, just as peoples of (now) traditionally Orthodox Christian countries did in the past?

[VG] It all depends upon what “roots” this American music will rely. This [situation] reminds me of the period when Russian church music was born. We didn’t have roots in church music, but we had strong roots in folk music. So when the Byzantine music came to Russia [through the Church], it came into contact with the Russian folk tradition. That’s not to say that Russians sang folk music during church services; rather, the Byzantine chant came into contact with those melodies that are typical for Russian folk music—lullabies, laments, ballads, that is, lyric singing.

[As a consequence] the Byzantine chant that Russians came to use for liturgical services, was naturally adapted and modified in keeping with the “sound” of their folk music. For example, certain Byzantine chants may have contained unusual [modal] intervals that were incomprehensible to the Slavic Russian ear. So Russian singers began to attenuate these intervals in accordance with their folk-singing traditions, and this is how Russian chant came about: on the one hand it recalls Byzantine chant, and on the other hand it is reminiscent of Russian folk singing. As indigenous Znamenny chant developed, the Russians stopped singing Byzantine chant for hundreds of years, although now it is being reintroduced in some quarters.

The current situation in America is in some respects analogous to the Russian experience. If American folk music contains some types of slow lyric melodies, such as lullabies or ballads, perhaps they can serve as the bases for new chants. But, if you were to try to employ upbeat country music, using guitars and banjos, this would lie outside the realm of [both the New and] the Old Testament.

What you need are slow melodies, but not “spirituals,” because spirituals are from a different religious tradition. In Kenya, for example, there is Orthodox liturgical music based on local African music, but this is specifically linked to that culture and very different than any other tradition. Kenyans dance during liturgical services and play musical instruments, such as drums. This is not necessarily bad; I like it because it comes from a natural culture. But, if you take that model and bring it to America, it would be very bizarre. In the case of American liturgical music, it might be better to rely on those traditions brought by St. Herman [of Alaska] and other missionaries, which refer back to the Russian tradition.

For Americans, Russian music is closer in spirit and heart; the sound is more familiar. [From my point of view] it’s not that one should not write American liturgical music; the challenge lies in the fact that, in the words of my composition professor at the Moscow Conservatory, Roman Ledeniov: “Good new music always resembles something from the past, while bad music tends to be unlike anything that came before.”

American composers, such as Vladimir Morosan, approach the composition of new melodies in the Znamenny style in the same way that Russians originally used Byzantine chant; they come up with their own compositions, and they sound brilliant! Other liturgical composers, such as Fr. Sergei Glagolev in America and Fr. Ivan Moody in Portugal, have followed a similar approach, creating new compositions [using the cadence and inflection of the English language].

On the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul this week, we will sing some of this new “American” music. These composers are wonderful at being innovative while relying on tradition. Without an element of tradition, these new efforts would not be successful.

7. [SVOTS] We hope, Vladimir Aleksandrovich, you will continue to visit the U.S. and come to participate in such endeavors as your Master Class and Choral Workshop. I know that the participants have gained much knowledge from you. What have you gained from them?

[VG] A true teacher is only validated as a teacher when he “receives” something from his students. This may sound at first like a truism.

Let me mention one of the student conductors in the Master Class, Benedict Sheehan, a young composer and choir director, who conducts in a fluid and very musical manner. The fact that he has no formal training in conducting technique does not prevent him from eliciting the subtlety of the music, so deeply and so thoroughly, that while I came to teach him, I have gained a lot for myself, just from his interpretation [of the music].

As far as I can discern the Gospel, every person should be a “disciple” until his last day. When a teacher states, “Now, I’ve learned everything that I can; it is time for me to teach others,” at that point his pedagogical potential ceases. Indeed, I have seen such people! As a rule they are proud, they have high regard for themselves—like the Pharisees—because indeed they know much and are able to do much, but having reached a certain point, they don’t wish to go further. It’s a depressing, peculiar situation. The ancient-Greek philosopher, Socrates, said, “I know one thing, that I know nothing”!

It was Socrates, or perhaps Diogenes, I don’t remember, who drew a large circle in the sand, the circumference of which represented the sum of his knowledge. Next to it he drew a much smaller circle, which represented the knowledge encompassed by his students. Both circles had their limits, but because the circumference of the teacher’s circle was much larger, it touched many more different subjects, generating many more questions.

I am not Socrates, but I am often led to think and realize how little I know, especially in unexpected circumstances. For example, at today’s rehearsal, I became upset that some singers had not yet learned their respective parts. I left rehearsal and decided to go for a walk, to hide my disappointment. On my way, I encountered the seminary custodian [a Russian speaker] who asked me, “Are you OK?” I replied, “Yes, everything is fine.” By God’s mercy, what I had thought in the morning was an irresolvable problem, by the evening no longer worried me, because I actually did sense God’s help in what we’ve undertaken here. Additionally, I can attest that although everyone is coming up to me to ask if I am tired, I am not—even after having rehearsed 8 hours!

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