With Faith and Love; Thoughts on a Russian-American Choral Masterclass

By Victor Alexandrov on September 12, 2022

Spiritual music plays an important role in the cultural life of many countries in the world. It brings people together, unites their hearts, and acts as a crucial unifying link amongst worldwide musical cultures. The mission of the eminent Moscow conductor Vladimir Gorbik is directed specifically towards realizing these benevolent objectives and bringing them to life upon various continents around the globe.

Vladimir Gorbik is an inspirational figure in the realm of Russian sacred music. In spite of the complexities that beset the current international climate, he is not content to rest upon the laurels of past accomplishments and is constantly seeking to widen the scope of his educational musical projects on opposite sides of the ocean. Earlier this summer, Vladimir crossed the Atlantic, making yet another visit to North America, where he met with a number of Orthodox church musicians and churchgoers from various parishes.

VG: In this complicated time, I was suddenly struck with the idea that the situation can only be salvaged by the Lord Himself. The lack of mutual understanding among nations needs to be countered in a special manner, if only in the language of music. Recalling the words of Christ that ‘whenever two or three are gathered together in My Name, there I am also among them,’ I decided to appeal directly to my Orthodox colleagues in America: choirmasters, singers, and conductors, to pray together with them about peace on the entire planet. Thanks be to God, my close friends, Alena Plavsic from Kansas, the Executive Director of our joint company “Music of the Continents,” who is also affiliated with the Fund for Assistance of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia; Vladimir Morosan from San Diego, the president of the music publishing company “Musica Russica”; choirmaster Seraphim Hanisch, my conducting student and the co-founder of our Capital Symphony Orchestra in Moscow and New York, helped me make this fantastic, two-week-long trip a reality.

When I arrived to teach the masterclass in San Diego, which was the farthest point on my journey from Moscow, the difference in time zones was 10 hours. And in spite of the exhausting flights, the masterclass at St. Katherine Orthodox Church (Carlsbad, CA), was a tremendous success. On the blessed shores of the Pacific Ocean, I witnessed not only a living example of the love among the parishioners of St. Katherine Church (OCA), but a total love of the people towards all living things. There was no doubt in my mind that they wanted peace upon the entire Earth. My hosts, Vladimir Morosan (a one-time graduate researcher under the great Russian conservatory professor and choral conductor, Klavdy Ptitsa) and his wife Helen, were likewise deeply moved when they learned about my goal—to pray together for peace.

Participants in the masterclass included 10 choirmasters (including choir directors from the Antiochian Archdiocese, the Greek Archdiocese, the Orthodox Church in America, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and the Serbian Archdiocese), and 15 choir singers. All of them did their best to follow my instructions and recommendations. Father Andrew Cuneo, the rector of St. Katherine Church, was greatly impressed by the quality of the singing at Vespers and Divine Liturgy, and expressed his appreciation from the ambo. This priest, who frequently visits Mount Athos, has been able to create an extraordinary atmosphere of friendship, love, and harmony in his parish. All of this is to say, that, while I had arrived with the intention of teaching church singing, what I received from these people was an admirable example of how to live a Christian life.

Father Andrew invited me to work with the parish youth group, following the Divine Liturgy. The question arose, would I be able to find a common language with American teenagers, and would what I have to say be of interest to them? I responded that as a father of ten children, I would have no trouble communicating with them, even in English. Fortunately, the language barrier proved to be non-existent! To my great joy, at the end of the class, the kids asked me eagerly: “So when is our next class? Next week?”

All of this led me to the conclusion that ordinary people want only to live in peace and harmony, and not think about conflicts on the world stage. The reaction of Father Andrew turned out to be highly supportive and not unexpected: he encouraged me throughout this unique spiritual undertaking, and his joy and understanding of the necessity for church singing of a high caliber moved me to the depths of my soul. In the weekend announcements, he wrote:

This weekend, our community enjoys the blessing of going deeper into the Orthodox musical tradition with the visit of maestro Vladimir Gorbik. All that the Church offers is God-given, and our music tradition is no exception. St. Porphyrios used to say that the very notes of Byzantine chant drive away the demons. How much more so, when clergy, singers, and faithful, in the love of God, articulate the holy words about the actions of our Savior or the grace seen in His saints. When we sing, we invite grace into our hearts and into the very air around us. (This is why, conversely, the devil tries to fill every waking corner of our society with secular songs). The chant and choral tradition of the Church is no accident, but an accomplishment of the grace of the Holy Spirit to make worship befitting to God.  Let us ‘sing praises to our God, sing praises!’ (Ps: 47:6)

The participants in Vladimir Gorbik’s educational masterclass included church choir directors and singers from Orthodox choirs in San Diego and other cities in California. This unique opportunity allowed all of them to improve the skills necessary for them to further their vocations and careers. And while each person’s activities will follow an individual course, their mutual encounters and conversations about music will undoubtedly make each person’s life richer and more beautiful.

                                                                                                            —Victor Alexandrov

Transl. from the Russian by V. Morosan

Photo credits: Elena Borowski

Link to Russian-language version

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