A Transformative Learning Experience
Like other liturgical arts, the art of liturgical singing, whether solo chant or choral, is dependent to a great extent upon apprenticeship and following traditionally established models. The successful transmission and development of this subtle and ephemeral art depends on the availability of opportunities for aspiring liturgical musicians to encounter examples offered by skilled master teachers, to observe and to learn from them in direct and personal ways.
Such an occasion was offered once again to the attendees of the Vladimir Gorbik Master Class entitled “Interpreting Orthodox Sacred Choral Music,” which took place June 27-29, 2013, at St. Seraphim Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa, California. During the intense two-and-a-half day period of preparation and worship, five student conductors and nineteen singers participated in 2 two-hour conducting seminars and 5 three-hour choir rehearsals, followed by a choral recital. The event culminated with the All-Night Vigil and Divine Liturgy for the feast of the Leave-taking of Pentecost and SS Peter and Paul (NS) on Friday evening and Saturday morning, respectively, alternately sung by the Master Class Chorus, under the direction of Vladimir Gorbik and the student conductors, and the parish choir of St. Seraphim Church, under the direction of Nicholas Custer. Archbishop Benjamin of the OCA Diocese of the West, who presided at the Divine Liturgy, spoke warmly to the Master Class participants, saying that he could not recall the last time he attended a service that was better sung.
What exactly had the Master Class singers experienced in the preceding two days that enabled them to sing the divine services in such an extraordinary way? It was clear to everyone that some type of transformative process had taken place within a very short time, combining motivation, learning, and personal growth on the part of each participant, and bringing about a result that was greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the singers were experienced vocalists with conservatory-level training, while others were rank-and-file church choir singers; some of the repertoire was extremely challenging, such as Rachmaninoff’s Cherubic Hymn and “We Hymn Thee” (from his Liturgy opus 31), while other portions were quite simple, consisting of Kievan Chant litanies and responses; some of the hymn settings—by Nicholas Reeves, Benedict Sheehan, and Nazo Zakkak—were brand new compositions, while other settings were centuries-old znamenny chants. Some student conductors were seasoned professionals, while others were beginners, standing in front of a large choir for the first or second time in their lives.
The unifying factor at the Master Class that harmoniously brought all these elements together was Vladimir Gorbik’s inspired teaching and model of leadership, which instilled in everyone a focused seriousness of purpose, a great reverence for the sacred words well joined to beautiful melody and harmony, and the necessity to dedicate one’s entire self–heart, mind, and body–to the task at hand. Nothing was allowed to be sung in a matter-of-fact, perfunctory, or careless manner, without due attention to ensemble, intonation, and nuance. As one participant noted, it seemed that Maestro Gorbik’s most frequently used word was “More!” More sound! More nuance! More strength! More beauty! More energy! More mystery! At the same time, every external interpretive device or musical technique was related, in vivid and memorable real-life analogies, to a spiritual dimension of the church singer’s and conductor’s ministry.
“The Vladimir Gorbik Master Class was a very insightful and exceptional experience, I was offered the opportunity to augment my current conducting abilities as well as gain a sincere understanding of how to interpret and conduct the music of the Orthodox Church…. This Master Class was not only a unique musical opportunity; it was also a spiritual journey I will always treasure.”” – A professional conductor and college faculty member
“Vladimir Gorbik so effectively communicated the height, depth and spirituality of our worship through his holistic understanding of mystery and music: where Earth and Heaven meet. I have been changed by Vladimir’s heart he so freely shared… On the Sunday following the Class, my overall conducting had a new life, a fresh spiritual pause and a more solid connection to the text and the liturgical context.” – A church choir director who sang in the choir
“I would recommend the workshops to those who have very little experience with Orthodox church music, as well as to those who are active singers and directors in the Orthodox church. I would welcome the opportunity to sing with Vladimir Gorbik on one of his future visits.” – A non-Orthodox choral musician