A Passion For
In a high-ceilinged room facing Charles Street, on a bright
and blowzy Tuesday, with sounds of midmorning traffic filtering
through closed windows and a piano rippling in the room above,
Vera Danchen-ko Stern waves her hands in long, wave-like motions
as she waltzes across worn beige carpeting.
She glides from keyboard to singer and back again, translating as she goes.
"Nothing in the world is more beautiful than his black eyes." She stops short. A realization has come to her and she shares it with her class. "You know, this is one of the rare examples of optimistic romance in all Russian music," she says. Her subject matter--a 19th-century love song titled "There Are No Eyes Like Yours in the Whole World"--is nonetheless typical, in many ways, of the salon music of czarist Russia.
Although its composer remains anonymous, it could easily have been written by Glinka or Tchaikovsky or any of the great masters of the form. This is a song that wears its heart on its sleeve. It is sweet and sad and lyrical and aches with the sorrowful beauty of the Slavic soul.
To sing it properly, a singer must master a deft handling of Russian pronunciation along with a heartfelt sense of the demands of the poetry. Stern's weekly class at the Peabody Institute is dedicated to teaching singers--none of them Russian speakers-- both.
Poised before a music stand near the piano with score before her and pencil in hand, graduate performance diploma candidate Lauren Kinsey follows Stern's lead as she tries to work her way through a particularly difficult passage. The line giving her trouble begins with the peculiarly Russian combination of sounds best transliterated as "vzglyad," not an easy mouthful for a singer new to the language.
Kinsey has a rich soprano voice and enough years of training that the notes come easily. It's pronouncing them that proves a challenge, and Stern guides her student with a steady hand.
"This is the Italian approach, don't think about the consonants," she says as Kinsey sings, "it's only the vowels."
Like almost all the salon songs of this period, Kinsey's piece is in moderate 3/4 time, the classic waltz, named from the German walzen, to roll or revolve. And Stern does just that, dipping and swaying with the music as she negotiates the terrain between singer and accompanist.
She dances over to the pianist with a piece of advice. "You don't have to be classical," she says, sotto voce. "Be much bigger! And slower!" Vera Danchenko Stern wants to make sure that everyone involved feels the passion lurking just beneath the music's pretty lines.
In the presence of her electric enthusiasm it's difficult not to. "The beauty of this repertoire is that it is almost unknown except for a few songs and a couple composers," she says over lunch at the Peabody Institute's cafeteria. "This is a great treasure of music. It's a different poetry stylistically. Students singing these songs can express themselves. They can live through this music."
They can also offer something a bit out of the ordinary, a different musical presence than the run-of-the-mill Mahler lieder or Verdi arias. And that may be just the ticket at musical auditions where standing apart from the crowd can make all the difference in an aspiring performer's career.
"The ability to perform this music well makes the artist much different, which is an advantage," Stern says. "When I came to this country I kept hearing--even from the professionals--'Oh my God, it's dark, it's heavy and unsayable,' all of which is myth. The vocal music is very gentle, delicate and singable. It's very close to the Italian, with very singable vowels."
Her passion for the art songs of imperial Russia is a somewhat recent preoccupation. A pianist by training, Stern comes from a pedigreed musical family with deep roots in classical Russian music. Both her mother and father were professional musicians in the Soviet Union, where she grew up. Her brother, Victor Danchenko, is a world-renowned violinist whose solo career was launched in 1957, when he received the gold medal in the international competition of the 6th World Youth and Student Festival in Moscow.
A Jewish family in an officially atheist nation, the Danchenko's musical talents could shield them from the country's pervasive anti-Semitism only for so long. Victor emigrated in 1977, eventually landing in Baltimore as a faculty member at Peabody. Vera left Moscow the next year, with "two parents, two children and not a clue" as to how she would earn her living.
After having their papers processed in Vienna and a brief residency in Italy--"My marvelous Roman vacation" she calls it-- Vera and her family found themselves in Toronto. "We were very happy, but I spoke not three words of English," she says of her arrival in Canada. Luckily, she was fluent in French as well as Russian, perfect credentials to work in the world of ballet.
"My first job was playing for rehearsals at the National Ballet School of Canada," she says. "All the directions are in French, so I could understand. I was working all day on these bad pianos, playing music for the dancers." In the evenings she would return home to a piano she was able to purchase through a no-interest loan from a group formed to aid Jewish emigres. Many more hours would be devoted each evening to "cleaning up" what she had played during the day. In her spare time, she learned English.
The hours were long and the work was hard, but her family soon adapted to their new homeland. Within a few years she was teaching piano as a faculty member at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music. In 1989, she met an American emigre from Moscow who was working for the Voice of America. The following year they married, and Vera--now Vera Danchenko Stern--moved to Washington to be with her new husband.
As luck would have it, a temporary vacancy at Peabody enabled Stern to teach in Baltimore for two years while she built a clientele of students at her own Washington studio. It was during this time that she noticed how few singers in this country receive any grounding in Russian singing.
"Students are taught how to sing in German, Italian and French, but there are very few schools offering programs in Russian diction," she says. "About four years ago I saw a production of Eugene Onegin at the Paris Opera House. The voices were fantastic, but the pronunciation was--what can I say?--ugh!"
Stern decided she would develop her own class, aimed not to teach singing--students are expected to be singers already--but to guide non-Russian singers in a decidedly foreign language. This is the fourth year she has offered the course at Peabody.
"I am teaching how to sing in Russian, not the Russian language," she says of the course, in which students are taught the rudiments of reading and pronouncing the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. "I don't teach the grammar, but I do teach them how to recognize and transliterate the words. Nobody sings a word before they learn how to pronounce."
It is pronunciation and expression that takes up the bulk of her classroom work. "Students take this class because the music is very beautiful and extremely expressive," she says. "The younger generation really enjoys the chance to do music like this."
Stern tells her class the Russian art songs they are performing originated as a kind of folk music sung to guitars in the parlors of country houses in the mid-nineteenth century.
"Picture yourself playing the guitar along with this," she tells them. "The singing is delicate. Very, very delicate." She hums, and strums an imaginary guitar. "This is how the singing should sound. Now, let us return to pronunciation. The battle with words continues."
For Stern and her class, they are battles won in the beauty of an aching love song, sung as if played on an imaginary guitar.
A Russian SalonStudents in Vera Danchenko Stern's Russian Diction class at the Peabody Institute will offer an evening recital of Russian art songs on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 8 pm in the Peabody's North Hall. Admission is free and the public is invited to attend.
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