Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Maestro

It is a rare event in one’s life to encounter a true craftsman. One who steadily works on his art, continually perfecting it, demanding more and more from the materials he works with. Someone sensitive to the little nuances others would miss. Someone like Jiro Ono, the three-star sushi chef who was the subject of my favorite documentary.

After this weekend, I can say that I have met such a man. Vladimir Gorbik, the maestro from Moscow, conductor of ten choirs at the Moscow Representation Church of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, father of nine children. Last weekend he took his talent and attempted to mold twenty-six of us into a powerhouse choir. It was both a great challenge for us and for him, I’m sure. Jiro works with dead fish, but Gorbik works with living humans.

We were from three different seminaries—St. Tikhon’s, St. Vladimir’s, and Holy Trinity—having a long history of sometime rivalry. Although all three institutions can be said to be in the Russian tradition, it was the first time in history that we got together to sing a concert. There were four from Jordanville, six from Crestwood, and fourteen from South Canaan. Plus Alex Cooley and Elias from Montreal.

Rehearsals began on Thursday evening. We sat in our seats in fearsome expectation of the coming of the Maestro. I heard stories that he could be a harsh taskmaster. Then, a man in a gray dress shirt came in. His eyes were deeply set and looked like they had pored over many a music manuscript. He looked serious. Gorbik motioned for us to pray, and we begun with “O Heavenly King.”

We then started with the Great Doxology. Maestro Gorbik first worked with us in the bass section. He raised his arms. We sang: “Glo—” He stopped us. “Glor—” Nope. “G—” No way. He took out his iPhone, threw it in the air, and caught it. “This is how I want you to start.” We tried again, and as soon as his hand fell, we all started at the same time.

The rehearsals—over sixteen hours over three days—went much like that. We stopped and started. As soon as the Maestro found a little problem, we went over it again and again until it was fixed. “Stop singing like you’re enjoying a hot shower!” he told us again and again. This all caused us to go rather slowly at first, and I consider it almost a miracle that we were able to go over the concert repertoire. He also made us responsible for our own singing. If, during rehearsal, we sang the wrong note or breathed incorrectly, we had to stand up and sing several phrases. We were all popping up and down like whack-a-moles.

He also encouraged us not only to sing correctly, but also to sing with the right meaning, taking in the spiritual meaning of the text. To that end, he told us quite a few anecdotes, translated by our very hard-working interpreter. He told us about his time in the Holy Land, his amazement at the Vatopedi choir on Mount Athos, the death mask of Beethoven. All these anecdotes helped us not only understand what we’re doing (wrong), but also established a rapport between him and us. For example, while we were singing “Doors of Repentance,” he told us about King David: “Now, when King David found out that his son Absalom was killed—his own son, who rebelled against him—he went on procession barefoot, and sprinkled ashes on his head. Can you imagine Barack Obama—or Vladimir Putin for that matter—doing that? You need to sing with David’s spirit of repentance.”

There were a few breaks during rehearsals, and several hours each day, but we were basically doing nothing but singing, eating, and sleeping. We had Vigil and Liturgy at the St. Tikhon’s Monastery Church, with His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon serving. His Beatitude liked the singing, but we (and Gorbik) knew that we had made some glaring errors and needed to work some more.

After Liturgy, I approached Benedict Sheehan, the conductor of the St. Tikhon’s choir, with a desire to sing the solo for “The Waters of Babylon.” I had the feeling that I wasn’t going to get it, but I wanted to try. Benedict explained the situation to Gorbik, who was at first reluctant but decided to hear me out. We went to Benedict’s office. I sang the first canonarchal verse: “We hanged our harps upon the willows…”

“Stop. Try again,” he said.

I stuck my diaphragm to the sticking point and somehow found some extra room in my upper palate. When I reached the last note it felt as if my entire head was ringing like a bell. He got the sound he wanted. I worked with him one-on-one, with the assistance of Benedict, Elias, and the interpreter. It wasn’t jelling. As I tried singing for the umpteenth time, he got up. “I’ve got a good exercise for you. Archimandrite Matfei taught me this.” He went to the piano. “Think that you’re picking up a piano when you’re singing.” Apparently he was only being figurative but I took him literally and grabbed one corner of the upright piano and pulled upward. This time my voice sounded a lot stronger. Apparently the tension caused by lifting the piano did good things to my abs. By the end of rehearsal I felt like I just did fifty sit-ups.

The concert was at an Episcopalian church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. At the sound check (which was really the final rehearsal), Maestro Gorbik was still pushing us. When I tried doing my solo, he sent me to the piano! It didn’t have the effect he wanted. (I blame the piano. I work better with uprights, not grands.) “Keep practicing,” he said. I went off to a conference room, which luckily had an upright piano, and kept singing until it was time to go to the green room.

The Maestro gave us his pre-game pep talk. He was only strict to us in order to get out the best possible sound. “What’s the sense of telling you ‘Good job!’ when you made a mistake? You’re grown adults, not children.” As the Lord chastiseth those whom He loveth, so also did he chastise us. We lined up and marched out to face the audience of three hundred.

I could describe the concert, but why don’t you judge for yourself from this clip? The sound quality is camcorder-level, but it captures some of the spirit of our performance.


It wasn’t perfect, and there were some obvious hiccups in singing, but the audience received us enthusiastically. Bishop Michael of the OCA also stood up and gave some congratulatory words. I think we were all ready to sleep. The concert will be featured on local radio (available streaming here) in the near future; I’ll let you all know when it comes on. Also, God willing, we’ll eventually have a CD of the performance!

I’m very happy that I got the chance to work with Maestro Gorbik and all the other people who made this concert a success, and hope that we can do this again next year. I also recommend to anyone wanting to improve their vocal strength to start lifting pianos. Don’t sing yourself a hernia, though.

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