The launch of a new sacred music competition in Russia, a generation after the officially atheist USSR was dissolved, is a significant event. Therefore, to attend this competition’s two winners’ concerts was not just a privilege but also a fascinating and unique cultural experience.

The state-supported St. Romanos Melodos International Composers Competition has been explicitly designed to revive the spiritual and musical traditions founded in pre-revolution Russia, and is open to newly written pieces of choral music which set Russian language texts either sacred or secular in origin. There are categories for both large scale and small scale pieces, and ten prize-winning works were presented last week over the course of two concerts in the Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg.

This particular competition is part of a wider programme of events seeking to propagate the same ‘spiritual’ agenda. There is also a choral festival which launched in 2009, a yearly series of Great Lenten Concerts, and a Summer School which promotes the art of the Orthodox tradition across a variety of media, through workshops and a visit to the historic monastery on the island of Valaam. In short, there is a great sincerity of purpose to this series of events; coming as I do from Western Europe, this was unfamiliar to me.

It is crucial, however, to retain an awareness of cultural perspective, and there is of course nothing wrong with the basic idea of promoting ‘spiritual’ music while retaining a sense of function for this music which is unfashionable in the UK. The competition judges expressed the hope that the entries will see liturgical use, and this is an admirable ambition. The British religious choral music scene, after all, is not in the best place currently as far as new works go, and a prevalent societal atheism is surely a key reason for this decline. Insofar as this new competition seeks to meet a continuing demand for new religious choral music, it is worthy of praise. The existence of such a demand among Russian people is not a subject on which I am qualified to speculate, but I can express surprise at general producer Natalia Orlova’s assertion that the music was ‘not the main objective’ of the competition; it seemed to me that the emphasis instead was on the word of God and on encouraging a resurgence of the ‘Russian soul’ articulated through religious art. Given the particular context of a composition competition, I found it strange that the musical element was downplayed so categorically.

This attitude was reflected, though, across both the concerts and a majority of the winning pieces, which were selected from around 300 entries. The first concert, entirely a cappella, featured four works which were not musically progressive in essence, using a secure and familiar tonal language which was an effective vehicle for the sacred texts. The second featured more variety in terms of both style and instrumentation, but a deep-set harmonic conservatism remained. The winning piece in the ‘Miniature’ category, Alexey Larin’s Calling for the Vigil, was an exception, showing more stylistic imagination without obscuring the text.

That Larin occupies a prominent position at the Gnessins Russian Academy of Music in Moscow suggests to me that most of the music in these two concerts may not have been representative of contemporary Russian composition overall, and perhaps not even of contemporary Russian church music. Although the competition’s entry criteria were relatively broad – and the panel of judges could have been less so as well, containing well-known film composer Alexey Rybnikov, Pavel Karmanov and Andrei Petrenko among others – the generally similar style of the winning pieces did not speak of breadth. Karmanov, a respected composer internationally, mentioned that there were apparently very few stylistically bold pieces among the entries. This may be the case, but it doesn’t change my impression that the winners’ works were all surprisingly uniform in style.

For this competition to develop as an event with significance beyond the context of Russian Orthodox church music, it will be necessary for it to evince a wider conception of acceptable religious composition. The pieces heard displayed little engagement with the music of contemporary figures Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Pärt, despite the presence of both on the competition’s Board of Trustees – and there was little sign either of the influence of the tradition of pre-revolution Russian sacred music. There is surely plenty of value in this tradition – even including works by composers well known outside Russia such as Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky – which does not seem particularly to have been absorbed in the pieces presented here. The simple style apparently favoured did not make me recall the high-points of existing Russian religious music, despite the real richness of this repertoire.

Signs of a bright, perhaps progressive future for Russian Orthodox church music, however, were occasionally on display, for instance in Larin’s piece and the deservedly popular work of singer Divna Ljubojevic (who performed in the first evening’s concert). From my British perspective, however, more risks will be needed to encourage the development of this choral tradition, and more diversity will need to be tolerated and indeed encouraged in the competition entries.

The concerts were a fascinating window into Russian religious and musical culture, though I feel that from the ‘international’ perspective suggested by the competition’s title, more musical inclusivity is called for. I hope that this competition will progress in future years in such a manner.

Read Paul’s first concert review from Russia here. Read Paul’s second concert review from Russia here.