The outstanding vocal ensemble Quire of Voyces, under the direction of founder Nathan Kreitzer, will complete their 2013-14 season with a concert they call "Songs from Ancient Lands" at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the acoustically vibrant chapel of what used to be Saint Anthony's Seminary, and is now the Garden Street Academy, 2300 Garden St. in Santa Barbara.
The Quire will perform Now the Powers of Heaven by Aleksandr Sheremetev (1859-1931), Sacred Love by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) and the All Night Vigil ("Vespers"), Opus 37 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
The "Ancient Land" in question, this year, is Orthodox Russia, which has been Christian since the ninth century. The Greek monks who converted Russia didn't just bring Orthodox Christianity with them; they also brought their alphabet, called "Cyrillic" script, which is basically Greek with the addition of a few symbols to indicate sounds in the Slavonic liturgy that are not native to Attic Greek. Russian was not a written language until the monks wrote it down, in Cyrillic, on principles of Greek syntax.
It was not a perfect fit, and for years, Russian grammars would state a simple rule, followed by 10 pages of exceptions. One of the few positive programs initiated by the Soviet Union was the simplification of Russian grammar, which was not yet completed by the time the USSR dissolved. Anyway, once you know the Greek alphabet, it is easy to spot the Aegean foundation under the Cyrillic superstructure.
This program is mainly about the Rachmaninoff, of course, which is a work of such unearthly beauty that it beggars description. It is commonly known as a "Vespers" although only six of its 15 movements are based on the Orthodox Evening Service. It is correctly called the "All-Night Vigil," which, according to Wikipedia, is "a service of the Eastern Orthodox Church (and Eastern Catholic Church) consisting of an aggregation of the three canonical hours of Vespers, Matins and the First Hour. The vigil is celebrated on the eves of Sundays and of major liturgical feasts." It is a fact that, when he composed the "Vigil," Rachmaninoff had ceased attending church services, but no one listening to it would think that he had "lost" his religion.
Sheremetev was born a count in Tsarist, Russia, and he died a count in Paris (the Soviets could have killed him, if he had stayed in Russia after the Revolution, and they naturally took away all his lands, but they had killed at Ekaterinburg, in 1918, the only human with the legal authority to strip him of his nobility). He came from a long line of music-minded aristocrats — an ancestor in the 17th century had founded the first private choir in Russia. He himself founded a symphony orchestra in 1882, continued to operate the choir he had inherited from his father, and spent all his Russian years promoting music. He conducted the first Russian performance of Wagner's Parsifal. His own music is lushly beautiful, but somewhat anonymous.
Sviridov, whose father fought with the Red Army and was killed during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), stayed in Russia after the Revolution and became a Soviet composer. Consequently, his personal biography is a good deal less interesting than that of Count Sheremetev (an artist wishing to survive the reign of Stalin was obliged to make himself as boring as possible). In his Sacred Love, which reminds me of Glière, it is Love itself that is the sacred thing, and becomes religious only if you accept the formula God = Love.
Tickets to this Quire of Voyces concert are $20 general admission, and $15 for students and seniors. They are available at the door or through the Garvin Theater box office at 805.965.5935.