The Making of Kastalsky’s Requiem

It was October 27th, 2016, and I had just finished conducting a performance at the Spaso House in Moscow. Spaso House is the US Ambassador’s residence, a neoclassical building that has been leased to the US government since 1933, and where the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Bernstein gave recitals during the Cold War. US Ambassador John Tefft had invited The Clarion Choir to perform there that evening as part of a larger tour, sponsored by the Department of State, to give the Russian premiere of a lost work that had been written in St. Petersburg in 1923: Passion Week by Maximilian Steinberg.

Vladimir Morosan, the editor of Musica Russica publications, joined us on this tour. He had prepared a new performing edition of Passion Week and gave erudite musicological presentations on the work’s history at our performances that week in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In his pre-concert talks, he explained that the piece was never performed during Soviet times because Steinberg completed it just as the Bolsheviks came into power and banned all sacred music in Russia. In 2014, the work was rediscovered in, of all places, the United States. The score had made its way across the globe somehow and ended up in the hands of Russian-American conductor Igor Buketoff and his daughter Barbara Mouk. Passion Week was given its world premiere performance and recording by the fine west coast ensemble Cappella Romana in 2014, and, later in that same year, The Clarion Choir gave the New York premiere of the work and recorded it. Now, it was finally time to return the work to Russia, where it had been written more than 90 years earlier.

In the elegant reception in the Chandelier Room that followed the Spaso House performance, Vlad approached me over a glass of wine. “Steven, I know what your next project needs to be.” “Vlad,” I said, “could you let me enjoy this one for a minute?” He said, “We don’t have very much time. The centenary of the Armistice to World War I is approaching, and I know the perfect piece for you to perform for it.” He described to me a work that was written by Alexander Kastalsky, a student of Tchaikovsky who became the leader of the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing at the turn of the 20th century. In the years 1914–1917, Kastalsky labored over a Requiem to honor those who died in the First World War. The piece, like so many other Russian sacred works from this period, was never performed in its final version due to the Bolsheviks’ ban on sacred music. Vlad said, “November of 2018 marks the centenary of the Armistice to World War I, and it is time for this work to be heard.”

Vlad and I continued this discussion the following week after we had both returned home. He sent me the score, and I started to plan a performance and recording of it with The Clarion Choir. In November of 2016, at a PaTRAM Institute function, Benedict Sheehan, the director of music of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Monastery in Waymart, Pennsylvania, approached me and introduced himself. He said that he was working on a project to record an important Russian piece written in honor of those who died in WWI. He asked if perhaps I might be interested in collaborating on the project. I asked him, “What is the piece you are planning to do?” He said, “Kastalsky’s Requiem.” It turned out that Vlad had approached two of his disciples with this idea, hoping that at least one of us would pursue it! It was for the best, because Benedict and I resolved to work together, and it was the start of a collaboration that made the project possible.

Even before we met, Benedict had already been envisioning this project being carried out by a consortium of multiple entities. He had garnered interest from Blanton Alspaugh and the Soundmirror production team to record the premiere of Kastalsky’s Requiem. He had also received a preliminary sign of interest from Charles Bruffy, music director of the renowned Kansas City Chorale, and their executive director Don Loncasty. The Kansas City Chorale already had a tour planned for the fall of 2018, so signing on to the Kastalsky project would mean shifting some of their existing plans. Benedict, Blanton, and I got on a flight to Kansas City. We were poised to make the argument to Charles and Don. We wanted them on board!

Conductor Leonard Slatkin

Another agenda item for this trip was to determine who would conduct the performance and recording. Benedict and I were deferential to Charles, who is such a well-established and highly-respected figure in the choral world. But we also had our own ambitions and envisioned conducting at least part of the program ourselves. So we arrived in Kansas City with our arguments well-rehearsed. But Blanton was a step ahead of us (as any good producer should be). Just as we sat down, before any of the conductors could even broach the subject, he said plainly, “as to the question of who conducts this performance and recording, why don’t we ask Leonard Slatkin.” The room fell silent for a moment as everyone let that sink in. No one could argue with this. Slatkin was ideal for this project. His love of Russian repertoire, his recording legacy with the National Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, and his open, collaborative spirit made him the obvious choice. All the conductors in the room began nodding their heads. “Yes, good idea. Great idea,” we all thought. Blanton, who had recorded with Slatkin on many past occasions, sent him a score, and only a few weeks later, impressed by the music, he accepted our invitation to conduct.

The team was coming together, and Vlad Morosan remained an important guide for us. Since Kastalsky’s Requiem had never been performed in its complete version, we would need to begin creating a new edition of the work from which the performers could sing and play. Vlad explained to us that there were three versions of the Kastalsky Requiem to choose from: the a cappella version, officially called Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes; a second version for voices and organ called Requiem for Fallen Brothers; and a partly lost orchestrated version that Vlad mentioned to us parenthetically. Vlad was steering us toward the a cappella version, Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes. It was the most cohesive version of the piece, written in a single language, Church Slavonic, and able to be performed by voices alone without instrumental accompaniment. Vlad also made the argument that the organ version had already been performed and recorded by the conductor Alexey Rudnevsky in Moscow, so the a cappella version would be the one to pursue. But having a faint memory of his mentioning it, I pried a little further into this mysterious “orchestral” version. “You had mentioned there is also a fully-orchestrated version of the piece,” I said in one of our phone calls. “Could you tell me a little bit more about that?” Vlad responded, “Oh, yes, there is one. But that would be very hard to put together. There is a hand-written score of it, but it is missing three of the movements.” “Could we find the missing movements?’ I asked. “Possibly,” Vlad said, “but even if we do, we would have to get special permission to perform them from whoever owns them.” I was momentarily dissuaded.

But over the next couple of weeks, my curiosity was piqued again. I called Blanton Alspaugh to get his take on the subject. Blanton is extremely practical, but he also seems to suffer from the same problem that I do — an uncontrollable desire to think big. When I presented the different options to him, he also was intrigued by the sound of the choral-orchestral version. Blanton’s reaction gave me the extra bit of encouragement I needed to inquire once more with Vlad about it. I called Vlad the next day and broached the subject one more time. There was an audible sigh on the other end of the line upon his realization that I was not going to stop asking about it. So, he gave me the full run-down: the choral-orchestral version was written in several different languages, French, Italian, Russian, Church Slavonic, and English, to represent the different allied nations that fought in the war. The piece also incorporated national melodies of the different countries, making it a more ecumenical setting of the Requiem Mass than the other two versions. Instrumental movements were also added to represent India and Japan. And there was even an American movement, added by Kastalsky after he met the American Extraordinary Mission to Russia in 1917 (the Mission traveled to Russia to assure the Provisional Government of US support, and also to try to convince them to stay in the war). The American movement juxtaposes the hymns Rock of Ages and Hark, Hark, My Soul with Chopin’s Funeral March. The American diplomats told Kastalsky that the Chopin march is often played at American funerals, which is why he decided to embed it in that movement. Vlad was sure that if we were able to reassemble all seventeen movements, it would be the first time the complete, final version of Kastalsky’s Requiem would ever be heard. A World Premiere. But this was not going to be easy. He would have to first dig up an old handwritten score of the first 14 movements. Then, he would have to make a new version of that score together with separate choral scores and orchestral parts. And finally, he would have to ask the Glinka National Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow, where he had learned the remaining movements were housed, to send us a facsimile of the remaining movements and to give us the permission to perform them in October of 2018. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he said. “Yes, let’s do this,” I replied.

Pieces were beginning to fall into place, but we were still missing a couple of critical items: firstly, the funding to pay for all of this. Secondly, the administrative prowess and coordination between the partners that would organize our efforts.

While the initial planning had been taking place in 2016 and 2017, I had, completely separately, put my name in to be considered for the music directorship of Cathedral Choral Society in Washington, DC, succeeding the legendary J. Reilly Lewis. The search process for the position was considerable, and extended from June 2016 through October 2017. In my mind, I had never connected the Kastalsky project with Cathedral Choral Society. But when I was fortunate enough to be offered the position, it occurred to me that it made sense for Cathedral Choral Society to join this project. The Kastalsky Requiem in October of 2018 could make a grand opening concert for my first season with them. However, I knew this would be a tough sell to Cathedral Choral Society. Leonard Slatkin had already been slated to conduct, and I surmised that Cathedral Choral Society would probably expect me to conduct my first concert as their music director!

Former Executive Director Genevieve Twomey

Genevieve Twomey was the formidable Executive Director of Cathedral Choral Society. I had gotten to know Genevieve quite well during the audition process. Something told me that she might like a good challenge and that she liked to think outside of the box. I thought there was a chance she might react well to this slightly unusual idea.

Genevieve and I had a call scheduled in late October 2017, before it was announced that I was coming on as Music Director of Cathedral Choral Society. We were to discuss how to make that announcement, as well as some initial repertoire ideas for my first season with the group. We got the simple scheduling business out of the way at the start of the call. Then we moved on to programming. “So, I’m interested to hear what sort of programming ideas you have for your first year,” she said. I asked her, “Are you sitting down.” I unleashed on her the whole story of Kastalsky’s Requiem, and said, “I know it sounds a little bit crazy, but, even though Leonard Slatkin would be conducting my first concert as music director, the message we would send with this project could be very compelling: that Cathedral Choral Society will be thinking outside of the box and taking on new, large-scale collaborative projects during this new chapter in the group’s history.” I could sense Genevieve’s sharp mind processing all of this new information. After a moment, she offered, “Yes, this could be interesting.” “Not a no!” I thought to myself. Genevieve not only agreed to the idea, but took ownership of it in a way that lifted the project to another level. Unified around the idea, she and I brought it to the Music and Programming Committee and the Board of Trustees of Cathedral Choral Society. Shortly thereafter, they became the fourth choral partner in this project.

Genevieve Twomey and the Cathedral Choral Society ended up providing exactly what the Kastalsky Requiem project needed: an additional partner with the professional discipline and staff to carry out a project of enormous complexity. Adding the voices of Cathedral Choral Society to the three smaller chamber choirs created a symphonic chorus that was the appropriate size and scale to complement the large orchestra that the score required. At just the moment when the partners were beginning to have doubts and misgivings about our ability to pull off a project of this magnitude, Genevieve became the leader that brought the energies of the different partners into focus and gave us all the confidence that we could figure out a way to mount this project. She asked the tough questions, and pushed us to make critical decisions that moved the project forward.

Once Cathedral Choral Society joined the effort, other aspects started to fall into place, such as an additional partnership with the Carmel Charitable Endowment that allowed us to bring the Orchestra of St. Luke’s from New York City to premiere and record the work with us.

From L to R: Anna Lipowitz, Laura Brisson, Lindsay Sheridan, Emily Buttram, and Steven Fox.

In the summer of 2018, Genevieve was asked by the Kennedy Center to become General Manager of the National Symphony Orchestra. All of us were thrilled for her, and none of us was surprised that she had been offered such an important cultural leadership position in Washington. At the same time, we were also a little antsy about losing her at a critical stage of the project. Still, by this time, she had put us in a place where we knew we could take the project to the finish line. Lindsay Sheridan, CCS’s brilliant marketing guru, took over as Interim Executive Director of Cathedral Choral Society and was determined, organized and invested in seeing it through. Come October, Lindsay, with the help of the cracker jack team of Anna Lipowitz, Laura Brisson, and Emily Buttram, executed the rehearsals, concert and recording sessions in Washington National Cathedral, and made it a success. The staffs of Kansas City Chorale, The Clarion Choir, the St. Tikhon Choir, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s were also heroic in their efforts. They brought their ensembles all the way to Washington, DC, to make Kastalsky’s Requiem a reality.

Premiere performance of Kastalsky’s Requiem

If ever there was a project that was greater than the sum of its parts, it was this one. No one organization could have mounted this project on its own. I remember the first rehearsal we had with all four choirs together. All of us packed into a room in the National Cathedral School. The groups had been rehearsing separately in their own cities up until that point, but we had never rehearsed together before. Most of the people in the room did not even know each other yet. But immediately, when Leonard Slatkin gave the first downbeat, the music brought everyone together, and it sounded like a chorus that had been singing together for a long time. When the audience filled Washington National Cathedral on October 21, 2018, and the opening chords sounded, we knew that the hard work had been worth it. A piece 100 years old had been resurrected, and it was the most fitting tribute possible to those who lost their lives in the First World War.

Now, nearly two years later, the lasting memory of that Sunday afternoon is encapsulated in a recording that represents the culmination of this project. For those of you who were with us for the concert, we hope it brings back powerful memories. For those who were not with us that day, we hope that you will enjoy hearing this extraordinary work for the first time.

Art is a reflection of our world, and Kastalsky’s Requiem expresses the struggle of those who were embroiled in the First World War.

Art is a reflection of our world, and Kastalsky’s Requiem expresses the struggle of those who were embroiled in the First World War. When listening to this recording, we should take the opportunity to remember this part of history, when a small spark in Europe became a worldwide conflagration. Music has a way of reflecting not only the time in which it is written, but also non-temporal aspects of humanity. One cannot help but think of the many lives that have been lost as a result of the pandemic when we hear this music. And we cannot help but ponder the worldwide struggle ahead of us to recover from its wide-ranging effects. Kastalsky’s Requiem helps us see the beauty that can shine through even in the most difficult of times.

– Steven Fox, Music Director

The symphonic chorus in residence at the National Cathedral. www.CathedralChoralSociety.org