Creating a tradition

The Sealed Angel is a new work, by the standards of the “classical” music canon.  Premiered in Moscow on June 13, 1988, it has had the good fortune to have received numerous performances, world-wide, since that time, under several noted conductors, and to be the subject of at least six commercially available recordings.  Utilizing only one instrument, and written in an accessible harmonic idiom, it is approachable, and affordable, which cannot be said of many major contemporary works—too often such pieces are so massive, so difficult, so expensive, and so inaccessible at first hearing, that they enter retirement soon after their first performances—presenters cannot afford to take a chance on them.  On the other hand, The Sealed Angel, premiered in the United States in 1990, has gradually entered the consciousness of American choral enthusiasts, and has created a positive buzz, though few have actually heard a live performance of the piece, much less participated in one.  The William Ferris Chorale presented the work’s  Chicago premier on March 20, 2009; so far as I can determine, it has not been heard here, at least in a complete performance, since that time.  I expect this will change, that many groups will rise to the challenge of presenting this work, and that audiences will react positively to it.  The most off-putting aspect of the work is its title-- we will all have to get used to that.

One hears, listening to recordings, that conductors have not yet settled on a tradition regarding the work’s performance practice.  Yes, the score looks complete: one assumes that Shchedrin had specific tempos and dynamics in mind, as well as over-all pacing; a specific version of the Old Slavonic language, specific musical transitions, etc.  But he wrote all of this down before he actually heard the work performed, himself; and conductors seem not to trust him completely—they take their own tempos, change his transitions, correct (or at least change) his text, utilize alternate pronunciations, and even change the specific sounds of the non-verbal sections (which are many).  Some add spoken narration; some incorporate interpretive dance.  They seem to respond to the “50% mathematics, 50% stupidity” that I wrote about last week-- perhaps they take him at his word, and feel emboldened to change those things with which they don’t feel comfortable.  I have no idea how Shchedrin feels about all of this, himself; perhaps he is mostly glad that the work is taking off, and trusts that it will develop a performance tradition all its own. As he has said, he sees himself as the medium through which the music is transmitted, rather than as a dictator; perhaps he conceives of this further growth and development as an inevitable part of a work’s history.

This creates difficulties for me, as conductor and interpreter.  I am supposed to make decisions; based upon what?  I am not Russian, not Orthodox, and no expert in this specific style.  I do not speak or read Old Slavonic.  Recordings present a range of possibilities; are these possibilities based on personal preference, or do they represent study, erudition, informed interpretation?  Each week, I come to rehearsal with changes and suggestions-- and hope that Chorale will be flexible enough, and trusting enough, to try something new.  I am somewhat freed to experiment, by the fact that so few in the audience will ever have heard the work; I am not likely to get a letter after our performances, criticizing me for my tempo relationships in movement VI, for example.  But one does want to get it right.  Inevitably, Chorale will add a new layer of varnish to the gradually accumulating layers which will become this work’s tradition; we trust that our contribution will be a positive one!