Last week, I was lucky enough to visit St. Petersburg to hear two concerts featuring winning pieces from the newly-launched St. Romanos Melodos I International Composers Competition. The aim of this competition is to revive ‘the spiritual and musical traditions founded in pre-revolution Russia’, and it was a fascinating window for me into a very different musical culture.

The first of the winners’ concerts featured four new winning compositions, all a cappella, performed by the excellent Mariinsky Theatre Choir under the direction of Andrei Petrenko. The primacy of a certain spiritualism was always clear, and the musical style of all these four works should generally be characterised as conservative. For an international competition which attracted around 300 entries, these winning pieces were remarkably homogeneous in style. The first two, the winners of the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus Prize by Vladimir Maslakov and Elena Konshina, were both tidily tonal and men-only. They exuded a sense of seriousness and commitment to their religious purpose, and I got the impression that musical adventurousness had taken a back-seat in order to allow for accurate and transparent presentation of the text.

The third piece – Natalia Varlamova’s To You, O Lord, which took second prize in the ‘Large Form’ category – was remarkably similar stylistically as well: texture was uniform almost throughout, and the atmosphere cultivated was reverent and sincere. The harmonic language was once again entirely tonal, in the most traditional sense, incorporating vanishingly little dissonance or chromaticism. Varlamova appeared to show a greater interest in historical religious music than the other composers heard this evening, working in chant-like passages of unison or organum to create a lightly archaic effect.

Unlike the previous two, this work was in a number of movements, which I imagine would fit neatly into a church service. In such a context, it would perhaps be unfair to object to the composition (or maybe any other) on stylistic grounds, if it fulfilled its function as an aid to worship. However, the concert-hall setting in which it was presented here cannot encourage such an interpretation, and treated as a piece of music, its unadventurousness did strike me as a real hindrance. The final piece of the evening was the winner of the ‘Audience Award’: Stichera by young Belarusian composer Ivan Titov. Stylistically this was very much a similar story, though a few more variations in texture were worked in, with several solos breaking up the sombre delivery of the sacred text.

For the second half of the concert, Serbian singer Divna Ljubojevic and her vocal group Melodi Chor presented a selection of choral miniatures from across Russian Orthodox musical history. Ljubojevic has a beautiful voice and delivered these pieces with panache. The lack of problem I had in accepting the simple harmonies and lack of boundary-pushing in this performance was a reminder of how comprehensively context-dependent our expectations tend to be. This was not presented as new music, and it was therefore not a problem that it wasn’t particularly original. Had I heard any of the competition pieces in a fully liturgical setting, rather than a black-tie concert hall one, I am sure my impression would have been quite different.

Read Paul’s second concert review from Russia here.