Passion and politics will come into play when Russian-born conductor Yuri Klaz leads the Winnipeg Singers in its latest concert on Sunday.
The 41-year-old choral ensemble performs the fourth instalment in its series Icons & Incense, which was established in 2008. Held every two years, the concerts highlight mystical works from the Russian Orthodox choral tradition, with this year's program featuring Sergei Rachmaninoff's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Op. 31 sung entirely in Russian.
The approximately one-hour a cappella setting of texts by the 4th-century early church father was once deemed "too beautiful" for use in the Russian Orthodox Church, and fell into obscurity after its 1910 genesis.
"It was completely rejected by church authorities because they felt its beauty would take all the attention away from praying," the Petrozavodsk-born maestro says.
But musical esthetics proved the least of it. The Soviet regime also forbade one of the work's most searing movements and emotional climax from being performed with its prayerful words.
"I was shocked," Klaz confesses of stumbling across a photocopy of an old Russian edition of the score in the late 1980s, and discovering the mesmerizing "cloud of sound," in which the soprano soloist soars over the choir, had liturgical roots -- and actual words. "I had sung this work since I was 16 years old in choirs and never realized the truth," he says.
Klaz, who is in his 11th season as Winnipeg Singers' artistic director, arrived in the city with his family in 2000 to become one of its busiest choral directors. He was awarded the title of "Honoured Artist of Russia" by Boris Yeltsin in 1995, as well as having received a silver medal for promoting art and culture in Russia.
The tireless musician leads four local choirs, including the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, which performed at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's Tchaikovsky Festival last October, once again singing music from his homeland.
Ironically, the Winnipeg Singers performed another setting of the Russian liturgy during the WSO's 2014 New Music Festival. Performing Arvo P§rt's sublime Litany with the world-renowned Hilliard Ensemble is a career highlight for Klaz.
"It's such a powerful piece and was truly an honour," he says of preparing his choir for the opening-night program. "And whenever I hear that music, it sounds like a Russian person praying, asking for forgiveness."
But there's another, more harrowing reason why this music resonates so deeply for Klaz. His great-grandfather, Pyort Alexandrovsky, a high-ranking Russian Orthodox priest, was shot to death in 1937 by the Stalin regime. That dark chapter in his family history lingers as a painful memory.
"It's quite dramatic for me," he says of conducting Russian Orthodox liturgical music. "It's very, very personal."
Also included on the "East meets West" program is the five-movement Canadian Mass cobbled together from Roman Catholic masses by Canadian composers: Imant Raminsh, Ruth Watson-Henderson, Jeff Enns, Matthew Emery and Leonard Enns.
The Waterloo-based Leonard Enns' Agnus Dei is a four-part harmonized setting of a Gregorian melody derived from the Catholic book of chants, Liber Usualis.
Also featured on the sacred program is another Enns work: The Hymn of the Cherubim, composed in 2002, and also based on text from the Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom.
"The essence (of the piece) is 'being' rather than "'getting there,' not like the drive to the finish line of a Beethoven symphony, but rather like the extended moment of a sunrise," Enns said via email. "The sense of time becomes irrelevant, and we are all-consumed by an unbounded presence, goodness and beauty."
As Klaz prepares the 29-voice choir -- augmented from its usual 24 members -- as well as pianist Verna Wiebe and organist Michael McKay for Sunday's concert, he reflects on the significance of showcasing his musical heritage in his chosen city.
"Russian music is so appealing because of its crying, passionate soul...," he says. "People respond to it straight away because it comes right from the bottom of the heart."
Icons & Incense IV will be performed Sunday at 3 p.m. at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church. Tickets ($25/$22/$10) are available from McNally Robinson Booksellers, at the door or by calling 204-944-9100.