Eve of the Ascension

Wednesday, May 16:

The day began with complimentary breakfast, served at the cantina -- too small to hold us all at once, and understaffed at any rate, but not disastrously so. I will not go into detail about the hotel's food -- it was neither very good nor impossibly terrible. I did have to come up with a way to service my caffeine addiction. I am a two-to-three-cup-a-morning coffee drinker, and jet lag excacerbates my need for the stuff. But, this being Russia, only tea was included with our meals. They did, however, have a German-style coffee machine that brewed strong stuff. Unfortunately, they also only offered German Kaffee-sahne, dreadful nondairy creamer that I grew to loathe during my years living in Deutschland. I would have to live without my beloved cafe au lait, and would have to add a sugar cube or two instead to make it palatable.

While the clergy and other pilgrims were able to spend the day visiting holy places, such as Donskoy Monastery, where Patriarch Tikhon's relics are kept, we choristers had to rehearse, not long after breakfast. We were there with a job to do, and everyone was keen to do it well. Trouble was, the hotel did not have any sort of space large enough for us to use, except for the lobby and the cantina, both of which were not private enough. So we gathered at the landing, just outside the elevator, of the 11th or 13th floor, I've already forgotten which. A few times, bewildered guests happened upon us, which was amusing, since we sat on the floor or stood around, singing. We went through the repertoire we would be singing that evening, at the Vigil for the Ascension.

For me, this rehearsal was rather stressful. My vocal range was short about a sixth of its usual height! This, I knew, was completely due to physical exhaustion. But, a soprano who can't hit the C above middle C comfortably is pretty useless, so I was a bit beside myself. Fortunately, after rehearsal, we had several hours during which to eat and do whatever we wanted. Many people chose to use this time to sightsee or shop a little, but I was too concerned about singing well that night and, more significantly, the next day. I went to my room and had an incredibly restorative nap.

That afternoon, we took a bus to Christ the Saviour Cathedral so that we could have a 'dress rehearsal' for the main event. What a place! It was impossible to get oriented easily -- it is just too huge and, indeed, magnificent, with huge icons and frescoes in rich colours throughout. Not everyone appreciates the romantic-era iconography that was the mode in 19th century Russia, when this place was originally built, but one has the be in awe of the enormous undertaking it was to restore what had been utterly destroyed by the Bolsheviks. The history of the original cathedral, its destruction, and its reconstruction by Patriarch Alexei II is recounted in English on the cathedral's website and worth a read if you're unfamiliar with it.

I was moved by one enormous wall, in a hallway approaching the choir lofts, which depicted a dozen or so of Russia's miraculous icons of the Mother of God. Among them is the ROCOR Hodigitria, the Kursk-Root Icon, which I mentioned in an earlier post.

Alena, a soprano from Washington, snapped this photo me and a number of others in this hallway. You get a sense of the scale of the place... quite sumptuous!

We rehearsed for a while -- amazed by the incredible echo. This would be dampened by the multitudes of clergy and faithful the next day, but it was incredible to hear ourselves in this way. Peter asked Vova Krassovsky to go downstairs and provide feedback as to how the sound travelled to different parts of the church. He had to communicate his impressions to Irene Gan via cell phone.

When he rejoined us upstairs, Vova recounted that he had been approached by an elderly Muscovite lady, who inquired about the choir. He explained that it was representing the Church Abroad, and her comments in response were thus:

"Choirs don't sing like that here. You are singing in the style of the Tsar's choirs!"

We did sound good, and I, personally, was singing much better than I had that morning, having had that restorative sleep! Soon enough, it was time to get downstairs and, ultimately, leave. The elevators are small, and the place is huge, so, having had to descend in small groups and then wait, there was plenty of opportunity for the singers to scatter and wander off. Irene and Peter had to count heads like kindergarten teachers, and it did take some time for us all to assemble. But we did make it on time to our first "gig" -- Vigil for the Great Feast of our Lord's Ascension.

We were singing at the "Big Ascension" (Большое Вознесение) church, depicted above with Irina Mozyleva in the foreground, and about which you can learn more, in Russian only, here . The Patriarch was serving Vigil -- these were my first glimpses of and blessings from him! We sang antiphonally with the church's regular choir, and the very first thing we sang, to greet the Patriarch, was that setting of the Ascension troparion with my Grandfather's harmonization. We also sang Dedushka's "Gladsome Light" (Свете тихий) and M.S. Konstantinov's setting of the Exapostilarian. In all, we sang very well. In fact, some little old lady came up to Peter during Matins and stage-whispered to him:

"In my opinion, you sing better than they do,"pointing to the house choir across the church.

This is the church where Russia's Shakespeare, Alexander S. Pushkin, was wed. I pondered that as we waited for the Patriarch to arrive, as we waited for this ecclesiastical history to being occurring in earnest. I looked around me: so many familiar, so many beloved faces! There was Vova, husband of my son's godmother, there was Father Andre, one of my late Papa's best friends, and his daughters, whom I've known since childhood. There was Misha Gill, whose mother was one of my grandfather's star singers and whom I've known all my life. Old friends and newer ones were all around me, and I felt that the souls of my ancestors were there as well. So many of us, all connected, all there together for this historic event. I remarked on this to Liza Olhovskaya, whose thoughts were along the same lines. She had old friends and much family with her on this trip as well. So did most of us in fact. Thus, it hit me. This pilgrimage was all about looking back at history and rectifying its mistakes.

How poetic it was. How lucky we were!

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