My Trip of a Lifetime

People often express their concerns regarding the direction modern technology is taking mankind. However, it is precisely due to this technology that I was blessed to experience the trip of a lifetime! This was the participation in a combined choir representing the Australian and New Zealand Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad at the 35th International Festival of Orthodox Church Music "Hajnowka" in Bialystok, Poland from the 18th to the 22nd of May, 2016. In addition, there was a side trip to Paris, France, for a special performance, but more about that later.

In preparation for this competition, the music we would be performing was electronically sent out well in advance by our dedicated and inspirational conductor, Andrei Laptev from the SS Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Strathfield, Sydney. This enabled the various participants in the choir to learn their parts for the fund-raising and performance practice concerts held in all of the cities from which came the members of the choir: Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide. Our number in Europe was supplemented to 20 in total, including Andrei, with some choristers known to Andrei from Paris and Vienna.

One can imagine our excitement on Wednesday, the 18th of May at finally all being together at our first rehearsal in Bialystok, about a three-and-a-half hour bus trip from Warsaw, traveling in a northeasterly direction. Previous rehearsals and performances only had part of the choir involved. Now that we had our full complement of choristers in one place, the event we had all worked so hard for was finally truly happening!

Before we knew it, our second day of rehearsals on Thursday, 19th of May had arrived, with the competition performance at the Bialystok Opera and Filharmonia Hall late that afternoon. We were both excited and nervous as there was the title to defend from 2014 when our choir won the parish choir section of the competition. The other sections of this well run and prestigious competition are: the children's choir section, the tertiary institution choir section, the amateur choir section and the professional choir section.

After performing, we knew we had sung very well but had we done enough to take out the title again? We were kept wondering, especially after receiving feedback the Byelorussian Chamber Choir "Transfiguration," which had performed just before us, were highly regarded by the adjudication panel. Time would tell. Meanwhile, there were other things to think about, namely our concert in Warsaw the following day.

After the morning bus trip on Friday the 20th of May back to the capital, lunch and sight-seeing in this beautiful, vibrant and interesting city, it was time to prepare for the concert, which was a promotion of the festival. All participatory choirs were given this same opportunity to perform in promotional concerts in different cities throughout Poland. Our concert was in the historic Evangelical-Augsburg Holy Trinity Church, situated close to the Pilsudski Square in central Warsaw. It was such an honour to be considered a standard high enough to be included in a program of professional choirs from Greece, Byelorussia, Rumania and Russia. It was also such an uplifting experience performing in such a concert where the venue had superb acoustics and receiving heartfelt congratulations from the Byelorussians, waiting to perform after us, as we were leaving the stage, accompanied by enthusiastic and prolonged applause from the audience. We received the same response from the audience after our festival performance in Bialystok the day before and they also obviously loved us! We were a tired but happy bunch on the bus back to our hotel on Bialystock later that night. It had certainly been a long day but well worth the effort!
Saturday morning the 21st of May was spent in rehearsals for our Paris concert and then some free time. We did some sight-seeing in the pleasant town of Bialystok, starting off at the elegant Branicki Palace, often referred to at the Polish Versailles. There was also the opportunity to return to the Opera and Filharmonia Hall to listen to the choirs competing in the tertiary institution and professional sections of the competition. There certainly are numerous excellent choirs in Europe and Russia and it was extremely beneficial for us to hear their performances.

Sunday the 22nd of May was another, extra special day for us. It was the parish feast day of the main, Orthodox cathedral of St Nicholas in Bialystok, so we obviously had to go there. The cathedral itself is very grand and with two Bishops, at least 8 priests, 4 deacons and too many altar boys to count, with the cathedral overflowing with parishioners, it was a very memorable celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Even the choir loft was filled to capacity with about 40 choristers, leaving no room for us! We were crammed into a small section of the left kliros and sang just a few pieces from the service, alternating with the cathedral's main choir.
Again, we received praiseworthy feedback from clergy, choristers and parishioners alike. While there, I wondered if our long standing precenter Ivan Evgenievich Strokowsky, who hailed from Bialystok, had ever sung in this cathedral. It was an interesting thought and I felt more connected to both Ivan Evgenievich and to Bialystock as a result. After lunch at the invitation of the main Bishop, we literally rushed to the Opera and Filharmonia Hall for the competition results ceremony, arriving there just in time.

The concert hall was abuzz with excitement and anticipation, jam-packed with just about the entire festival's participants. Due to our late arrival, we were only able to find seats on the carpeted floor of the tiered aisles. However, this inconvenience didn't matter at all when it was announced we had won our section of the competition! Again, our mixed choir from Australia and Europe was able to take out the top prize! It was a wonderful moment watching Andrei mount the stage to receive the award, so happy and proud of our achievement.

After the ceremony, we had the opportunity to discuss the result of our section with our friend Fr Ivan Moody. He is a British Orthodox priest and a composer of church music who resides in Portugal and we met him in 2011 when he was the keynote speaker at our church choral convention in Melbourne. Fr Ivan was one of the six members of the adjudicating panel and he was able to share with us the reasons we were awarded the first place.

Apparently, it was a very close competition between the excellent Byelorussian choir I mentioned before and ourselves. Whereas they were technically perfect and had a seamless blend of voices, their repertoire was quite simple and similar in character. It was the fact we performed contrasting pieces, ranging from parties singing in compositions by Titov to various 20th century works by Chesnokov, Raspopov and Nikolsky, which gave us the edge.

In addition, we performed an especially commissioned and very atmospheric ektenia by a young, contemporary composer, Anastasia Pahos. We also had a real deacon, Fr Vladimir Bigdan from Brisbane, intoning the petitions of the ektenia in his rich, bass voice. It was interesting to note the more we sung this piece, the more we grew to love it. Again, it is thanks to Andrei's hard work in not only molding us into a top notch choir but also in selecting such an interesting, engaging, varied and prize-winning repertoire. After performing our 12 part "The Angel Cried" by Vassily Titov at the prize-winner's concert, it was a very light-hearted choir which made the bus trip back to Warsaw for the night.

Monday the 23rd of May - Paris! We met up at the home of Andrei's mother-in-law, Marina Pervichine-Poulet, for a rehearsal with the Paris Russian Women's Choir, which she conducts. Marina joined us for our Poland tour and was a valuable asset to the choir. There was definitely a lively atmosphere at her home, with more than 30 singers there together! However, we managed to go through all our combined concert repertoire to then relax at a meal and some animated conversation, accompanied by a few wines!

Tuesday the 24th of May, the last official day of our tour, had come around very quickly, as is always the case. After our last rehearsal in the morning, there was time for some sight-seeing in Paris in the afternoon. I was happy that I managed to negotiate my way from Marina's house, located quite far from the centre of Paris, by bus and metro into the city to meet up with Jim Bowring from Canberra at the Eiffel Tower, as one does in Paris! Despite the cold weather, it was delightful walking along the Seine towards our concert venue, seeing the sights and the famous Parisian buildings. We also came across the new Russian Orthodox Church and cultural centre under construction not far from the Eiffel Tower. It is a very unusual combination of traditional and modern architectural features and, to be completely honest, I'm not sure how effective its appearance will be when complete.

Eventually we arrived at the famous, historic church of St Germain des Pres (on the fields) near the Latin Quarter of Paris, the venue of our sound check and concert. Again, the acoustics were marvellous and it was an honour to perform in such an historic church, parts of which date back to the 6th century AD. Our voices sounded angelic in this special place and it was a pleasure to have met and sung with the Parisian ladies as well. Again, the audience clearly enjoyed our combined performance and enthusiastically showed their appreciation. Despite being a little tired by this stage, it was still a wonderful conclusion to our tour.

After the concert, it was interesting to see a bit more of Paris, going out to a nearby beer cafe in the Latin Quarter. It was very jolly there, made more so by us taking over the entire establishment with the lively singing of "Many Years" and several "charochkas", much to the amusement and enjoyment of the proprietors and other patrons alike!

As quickly as it all began, it had come to an end. We said our fond farewells and went our separate ways. Some, like myself, were returning to Australia the next day, others staying on in Europe or going to Russia for a holiday. I wish them well in their travels and a safe return home.

I've actually been drafting this article on the plane home, while everything is still fresh in my mind. Obviously, what I've written here is only a small part of the whole experience but I hope the readers of my reflections will get an understanding of what a unique and special event in my life this trip has been. I also wish to convey my deepest gratitude that I was able to be involved and especially to the people who made it possible: to Andrei for his amazing vision and leadership, to his wife Nastassia for her tireless support and behind the scenes work, to my fellow choristers from Australia and Europe who I will remember for ever, to our church choir for their support of me on so many levels and most importantly, to George Bergholcs for agreeing to conduct, not only the usual services but also a wedding in my absence. I knew I left our choir in good hands!

As I started this article, I'm also grateful for all the technology which made the trip happen and, on the whole, made things easy. It's so different since I was last overseas in 1996, with mobile phones, free WiFi everywhere allowing text messages, emails and calls at standard rates, the Internet with Google Maps to find our way around, etc. Oh, I nearly forgot, credit cards which enabled me to take out euros in France at ATMs, it's ridiculous, it almost seems too easy! Also, virtually everyone speaks at least a little English now in Europe, it's almost like there's no challenge in overseas travel now. No, not true, the challenge is the long flight there and back and being away from home.

With great challenges, come great rewards, as I've experienced on this trip. Glory to God in everything!

Natasha Stanco
Precenter, St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church Choir
Adelaide, SA

See the latest version of Orthodox Vestnik, a publication of St Nicholas Church in Adelaide, in pdf form, here.




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