Elena's Choral Revolutions
Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale's upcoming, innovative program features Carol Barnett's The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass with a five-member bluegrass band. And afterward, those bewitching melodies and songs from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, along with folk songs arranged by folk legends Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.
The Cantabile Youth Singers in Los Altos is lead by the internationally recognized Russian-American Conductor Elena Sharkova. There are actually seven choirs, with a total enrollment of 250 singers, ages four to 18. The Cantabile offers music education and vocal training, and performs in more than 20 concerts every year.
The backstory here is worth noting. Elena Sharkova, music director of the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, has long held this conviction: “We’re not going to let choral music become obsolete or irrelevant.” And so over the years she has arranged syncretisms of musical and choral styles. Latin, Cuban, and Jazz among them.
And now Bluegrass. Her desire for innovation is in part a measure of growing up in St. Petersburg where she found cultural expression relentlessly stiff and stultifying — in a word, belittling. “Now that I’m older,” she told us recently, “I see that was all just a way to keep us under control. That’s one reason Russians are not so good at improvisation” (at least until they leave the country.)
At 5, Sharkova was put on a ‘music track’, went to college at 14, took her doctorate at 23, and eventually became a conductor. But the unwritten rule in Russia is that women are not allowed to conduct a choir with men. Women and children, fine; but not men. Another unwritten rule had to do with religion: One might visit a church, to marvel at the icons and the architecture, but not to participate in a mass. Not to pray.
In the last 30 years, since coming to America, Sharkova has broken out. Yet always there is a preference for paradox. On the one hand, she reads the Dalai Lama on many mornings; on the other hand, the truth is that for her art has replaced religion. The rpm is more comforting. The revolution is more quieting. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she said quite guilelessly.
And so she finds a Bluegrass mass, which throws her for a loop, because heretofore she had no great interest in the sound, and was slightly put off by the quirky, slow-speaking, we’ll-get-around-to-it-when-we-can bluegrass culture. But when she heard the music mixed with classical instrumentation, Latin liturgy, and modern religious poems, it struck a note. And then she wondered what would happen if you mixed in a 90-member chorus.
But it’s putting this show on that really tests Ms. Sharkova’s mettle. “It’s all very improvisational. In rehearsals, we have to jam first. There’s really no program. It’s all TBD, to be decided. So you go with the flow. But while they’re trying to decide what to play, I’m saying, I have to remind you that we are on union time.”
Bluegrass Meets Choral: Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and Cantabile Youth Singers, October 21, 5 p.m., Montgomery Theater, San Jose, $24.
Included in: Kids Around the Bay
Mark MacNamara is a journalist who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The Stanford Social Innovation Review and The International Herald Tribune. His website is: macnamband.com.
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