Soviet Russia artworks—some might say that’s already an oxymoron—are too easy to dismiss. The chilling pressure of the government (famously on Shostakovich) and the dictates against religion led to tin-ear decisions, and often, dead-upon-arrival art. Bucking the anti-Soviet prejudice, Chicago Chorale’s next project, the hour-long, nearly a cappella, Rodion Shchedrin cantata The Sealed Angel bursts out from these constraints.
Loosely tied to the story of a religious icon covered in wax and stamped with a government seal, The Sealed Angel weaves Russian Orthodox melodies into familiar, mostly triadic harmonies, but with a glimpse of a centuries-old alternate universe of devotion, similar to Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (a.k.a.Vespers). Unlike Rachmaninoff, Shchedrin supplements the lush texture with nontraditional, but still atavistic, touches, such as stomping, clapping, a long upward portamento followed by a shout, and an odd tremolo effect made by palming the singers’ mouths (like the stereotypical Native American war whoop).
Shchedrin wrote the piece in 1988 for the millennial anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. A priest’s grandson, Shchedrin invoked the sounds of great Russian choral music—long-sustained chords, chant-like melodies, inhumanly low bass parts—while keeping just far enough from straight sacred music in order to pass the censors.
Chorale’s director, Bruce Tammen, says he programmed the piece after ordering a recording from a Russian music catalog on a whim, unaware that the William Ferris Chorale had performed the piece in 2009. “I’m always looking for major works that fill a concert a cappella,” Tammen says. “As a practical matter, I can’t afford orchestras.” And he didn’t see the unfamiliarity of the work as a strike against it. On the contrary, “It’s low-risk,” he says. “[I thought that] those who did come would really like it.”
The devout indulgences and spare, steeped-in-the-steppes beauty of the piece (listen especially for a female duet over choral accompaniment) ought to win over Soviet skeptics. So to those of you who saw “Soviet” and prejudged: Have a little more glasnost.
Chicago Chorale performs The Sealed Angel on November 16 at Hyde Park Union Church and November 17 at St. Vincent de Paul in Lincoln Park. For more information, go to chicagochorale.org.
Graham Meyer is Chicago magazine’s contributing classical music critic.
Photograph: Jasmine Kwong