Matushka Maria Bakhvalova is a new director of St Elisabeth Convent Monastic Choir. She has successfully worked with many choirs, participated in various international competitions and won multiple prestigious awards. Now she is directing a choir of monastic sisters. Why such an unexpected change, what difficulties does working with a non-professional ensemble involve and what does it take to keep the faith in such challenging endeavour? Heart-2-heart.news team is taking a close look.
Matushka Maria, as we know, you have picked up the baton of being the Sisters’ Choir director from its previous leader, nun Juliania (Denisova). Could you tell us of the reason for this handover?
It must be God’s will. I had not the slightest intention of taking the lead of the Choir. Because of mother Juliania’s engagement in other obediences and also for health reasons, she was often unable to go on long, tiring road trips, that concert tours involve. In many cases she would rehearse with the Sisters at home, but then one of the singers would direct the Choir during the tour. With time it was becoming more and more obvious that the Choir needed a director that would be in charge both at home and on the road. And that is how I have been chosen.
Could you tell us what is special about working with the Monastic Choir? How does a Music Academy graduate feel working with an amateur ensemble?
I really do not see a substantial difference between working with amateurs or professionals. It is the same vocal training and choral conducting. It consists of the same key components, namely tone, harmony, and expression. On the other hand, choosing a repertoire that suits a monastic choir is much more difficult, compared to a secular ensemble. Typically any choir would do perfectly well-performing a variety of easy-to-find folk and popular songs conveying random messages. Our mission of representing the Convent with its authentic spiritual and musical tradition imposes the need to find content that would correspond to the assumed ethic criteria and at the same time fall within the scope of our abilities. We are few in number, which may be a restraint. Besides, some of the singers have limited professional skills resulting in difficulties, that we encounter performing complex music scores.
At the present moment we are still using the repertoire mastered by mother Juliania. It includes popular monastic ‘hits’. These are spiritual canticles like «Glory be to God for all things!» and liturgical chants, such as Macedonian «It Is Truly Meet» or Trisagion of strochny chant. Audiences love these pieces and often even ask us to perform them as an encore. We should not, however, let this positive result stop our development. We have to grow professionally. Performing the same material time after time blurs the listeners’ perception. It is absolutely necessary to vitalize the concert program with new music not only to please the audience, but also for our own sake. It breathes new life into the choir, stimulates the singers to work up to their potential, which is invaluable.
I would also like to touch upon the significance of words, another constituent part of choral music. Spirituality is an essential part of monastic singing. Being able to reach the hearts of the listeners at its depth can be a good sign of its presence. How do you find balance between the music and the message that song lyrics or text of prayer contains? Which is more important?
It has always been difficult for me to distinguish between ‘more spiritual’ and ‘less spiritual’ singing. A choir can approach singing with a profound understanding of each thought contained in a chant or a song. If a joint effort is made, then, perhaps, at this point God begins to act. A choir is, after all, a conciliar body. You can master your vocal techniques to perfection and achieve the fidelity that will please the mind, but the heart will say ‘no’. Since we are, in fact, bearing witness to God, we need to do it consciously. It is therefore important to put your own heart into it, to include your personal prayer.
Yes, but does this not mean that a choir is perceived in a way that depends on each singer’s spiritual state?
I come across this very often. Clearly, the time spent practising will pay off, but working on our inner selves is another thing that we find very important. Inner peace is something that makes a big difference in choral singing.
Another thing that I would like to briefly refer to is my previous experience and how it is changing now. Back in my ‘secular’ choir conducting years my work appeared to be very successful. We won top awards and prestigious titles and achieved remarkable results. I see God’s Providence in it now, because back in the day I simply did not have the moral courage to face difficulties, and the Lord mercifully spared me from them. In my school years, I was paying very little attention to the choir and was mostly busy with solfeggio and piano lessons. And then I suddenly received a letter saying that I was admitted to choir conducting class of a music lyceum. Back then I could not have possibly even thought of travelling abroad with a monastic choir. Everything is different now. At this stage, I often feel that I am putting much effort into work and yet it is advancing very slowly.
Do you think that your present difficulties might be related to understanding the fact that you are working for God and using the talent that He has given you?
I began experiencing this with the Children’s Choir, that I had been put in charge of before I started working with the Sisters. I am directing both choirs now and I find it very challenging. Formerly I would have never agreed to work with children because of the specific nature of this work that can be very demanding. But now I try to approach it more consciously and view it rather as a ministry. This ministry would be very difficult to carry out without enthusiasm or spiritual burning if you will. It often serves as a raft that keeps you afloat despite the weight of your daily grind.
It is amazing how you manage to maintain this spiritual burning and to ‘ignite’ others.
I do not think that there is any way that we can control this. All that we can do is, to be honest, and simply try and live it. Let all that we are singing flow through our souls. The human soul is very sensitive, although we often try to mask this sensitivity and look ‘tough’. Purity is a distinctive characteristic of burning. And it is something to strive for. We try and make time to gather for regular rehearsals, which alone brings us closer to the burning point, since all the choir members have busy schedules that make it hard to focus on singing. But performing together as a choir is very rewarding. Meeting new people and communicating our creative ideas in the unique language of music is the most joyous experience.
The importance of integrity is something that I cannot stress enough. All singers need to understand that a choir really needs to be together as one. When we sing in a choir, we put parts of our souls into each word, each musical phrase of each song. We have to also learn to hear one another and be responsible for one another like family members. I am sure that the fruit of the Spirit, that we acquire from singing, will in time take over the disruption.
In modern days it is hard to imagine a person going into the world to preach the Gospel of Christ. Nonetheless, it is exactly what you are doing as a Choir — evangelizing by means of spiritual singing. What is the typical reaction when the audience see nuns performing on stage and how do they respond?
It is difficult for me to answer this question. I think that at this point we all become conductors of the Divine Providence. God may use us to touch people’s hearts, but we do not know how He does that. And yet I am certain that there is something providential about each concert. And sometimes we meet people that prove that. One such encounter was with a lady in London, named Alla. As it turned out, Alla was far from church life. But after the concert she told me, that she felt as if something had turned over in her heart. She visited three or four of our performances after that. Another one was with a young man who was in a very difficult life situation at that time. He thanked us and shared how important our visit was to him.
A contemporary person is so deeply involved in daily routine, that it is absolutely necessary for him or her to take an occasional break and switch to something else. And if someone prefers to attend an orthodox monastic choir concert to a great number of available amusements, I think it is just a very good thing. Just as the bible says: “Come and see”. God is plenteous in mercy and leaves no one deprived of His grace. Sometimes it only takes a small step to start a big change in your life.
For us too, travelling and giving concerts is a great opportunity to change something in ourselves. We get used to orderly and slow-paced life at home, and this is an excellent chance for us to ‘reboot’ and look at our work from a new angle. I often see that people that we meet in our travels are much more appreciative of the things that we often take for granted. And this is how God teaches us through our service.
How does your singing during concert tours differ from your singing at the Convent? Do you get many listeners?
Speaking of differences, there really are not many, but one is important: we are at home here, at the Convent. We know everybody and everybody knows us. It makes us feel at ease. When we travel and perform in unfamiliar surroundings, we feel that we are representing our community. We try to be very focused not to hurt anyone’s feelings by a careless word or a frivolity. There is no way that we can know in advance how many people will turn up at the concert. Usually, if you charge for admission, you can judge by the number of the tickets sold. But our concerts are free, so it can be 30 people or 300. The choir repertoire comprises spiritual songs and liturgical chanting. Such music is much harder to perceive than something modern and catchy. Besides, our audience is predominantly English-speaking, so no-one understands the lyrics. How do we catch their ear and make contact with them? Singing with our hearts and putting our souls into it is the only way.
Have you changed anything in your concert program this time? Are you going to please the audience with any new songs?
Yes, we are. We have added three new compositions to our program and we hope that they will complement the concert. The audience will be able to hear Cherubic Hymn of Georgian chant, a song by Archdeacon Roman Tamberg named «They Call Russia Holy» and one more liturgical chant, composed by our senior choir director nun Juliania (Denisova). It is called «Under Your Mercy».
God is infinite and such is our longing to know Him. We try not to limit ourselves in our desire to bring people joy by performing something new and unusual. “I am making everything new!” God tells us. We are ready to follow Him and willing to take the effort. May this effort not be in vain. And may our singing help people praise the Lord! We really look forward to seeing you at our concerts, dear friends. Please come and bring your friends, so that with one voice and one heart we may glorify God together.
Interview with Nun Juliania (Denisova), a well-known precentor and composer of church music. The story of her life, career and coming to God.