This weekend we are performing Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony again, as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s efforts to record the full cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. But the piece I’m more looking forward to luxuriating in is Grigorjeva’s “On Leaving,” a mostly a capella modern composition influenced by 15th-17th century traditions of Russian polyphonic singing and sacred poetry.
You may not be familiar with this composer – I sure wasn’t. Galina Grigorjeva was born in Ukraine in 1962 but now lives in Estonia. Her works often highlight polyphonic layers and Slavonic sacred music, and “On Leaving” is no exception. While the piece briefly features a tenor soloist, a flautist, and some triangles, it is primarily a showcase for the chorus, given its pervasive atmosphere of ancient monk-like chants. She sources the text from prayers in the Orthodox church service book, “[…] on the Hour of Leaving of Orthodox Souls” and “On Burying Lay People.” Though the text is Russian, it might as well be Latin; it has underlying meaning but functions more as a vehicle for the sustained harmonies and interwoven rhythms.
Mechanically, the piece demands a massive amount of concentration and intelligent breath control. It’s been a long time since I’ve counted to 8 for double whole notes in a piece, but long quasi-measured phrases call for it several times. Our conductor, James Burton, warned us today not to be fooled by so many white notes — producing them (and handling the breathing) cannot be boring. Each sustained note has to have a direction and a meaning within the local phrasing as well as the overall direction. He’s worked meticulously with us to make sure we are vertically tuned and aligned, that our counting and cutoffs are crisp, and that when we breathe, it’s with intent and purpose.
The combined effect of these opulent, sometimes discordant arrivals is the creation of an astoundingly beautiful meditative space. Even in the more somber parts, the beauty shines through; James described them as “like a dark cloud covering the sunny day.”
The second movement in particular is challenging (except for us basses, who have the luxury of holding pedal tones throughout). Parts overlap in rhythms of 4’s, 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s to create this many layered buildup of individual phrases stacked like warm covers on your bed in the winter. It reminds me very much of the second half of Part 7 of the St. John Passion by James MacMillan, a composer who also favored melismas and stacks of voices at different related rhythms. In both cases, the singing complexities lead to a transformative effect that’s hard to describe. It overloads your brain so that you stop perceiving individual lines and exist instead inside an expanded head space.
One other note worth mentioning. In our final piano rehearsal, we reached a moment where the chorus fused tightly together, as if we broke through the copious notes and adjustments and aligned to express the piece as a unit. It was exhilarating to finally reach “flow,” not just for this piece but as a chorus as a whole – the last time I felt that strongly was during the Pizzetti prelude performance two summers ago. James praised us for it afterwards, momentarily dropping his focus on technical fixes to encourage us to search for that moment again in performance. And personally, I love that we got far enough past the technical corrections to earn some coaching on how to distill the soul of the composer. There is a spirituality that this piece can’t help but communicate. We are going to change at least one audience member’s life when they witness this piece. I’m looking forward to it.
(We’re performing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday evenings, though the Grigorjeva piece is not on the program Friday night.)