Peter Fekula has been the Choir Director of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in New York for four years. He has directed choirs for over 30 years overall. He is a descendent of what is known as“the old emigration.” A graduate of Harvard University, he speaks proper Russian—every generation in his family speaks Russian; he carries a solid repertoire of classical music, loves jazz and Gypsy romances and the songs of the Russians of Paris.
– Petr Alexeevich, every Russian born abroad has his sacred thread which connects him with the homeland of his ancestors. How did your parents find themselves in America?
– My paternal grandmother, Maria Ivanovna Karzubova, was born in 1908 in Moscow. Immediately after the Revolution, her large family of Old Believers moved to Latvia, near Riga. My grandfather, Petr Mikhailovich Fekula, hails from Canada. His grandfather arrived there from Carpatho-Russia in the 19th century. Petr’s father, my great-grandfather Mikhail Fekula, was ordained to the priesthood in Canada by Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin), who later became the Patriarch of All Russia.
My grandfather worked as a representative of Ford Motor Company in Eastern Europe. He met my grandmother in Riga. According to family tradition, he asked her parents to allow him to take her to the movies. But her father, Ivan Savelievich Karzubov, a strict man, did not let his daughter go to the movies, but invited him to tea instead.
My father was born in Riga in 1931. When the Great Depression began, my grandfather lost his job and returned to America with his wife and two-year-old son.
My mother, Liudmila Andreevna Khaktsazova, was from Kharkov. During World Word II, she and my grandmother, and many other Kharkovites, were sent to work in Germany, and in 1948, she and her mother were able to go from the American Zone in Germany overseas.
My parents met at a musical evening in New York. Mama was an operatic soloist with the pseudonym Liudmila Azova—she had a very beautiful voice. My father played the piano, directed the church choir, and had his own jazz orchestra. So, as you can see, I was raised in music. As a boy, I also sang in the opera: I soloed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1978, when I was 15 years old, my father passed on the directorship of the choir of St Sergius of Radonezh Church in Glen Cove to me. Since then I have been a choir director.
– And yet, after graduating, you chose a non-musical profession…
– I studied politics in Harvard University, and now work for an ad agency. This work has little to do with music, but, as a college student, and even before, in high school, I would attend courses in various musical disciplines, including choir-directing, the history of music of different eras. I graduated the preparatory program of the renowned Mannes School of Music in New York. I love the music of the Renaissance, the 16th-17th centuries, which I performed as a college student. I love playing the piano.
– You became a choir director at age 15, and recently handed the direction of the parish choir to your elder son.
– On holidays and Sunday Divine Liturgy, when I conduct the Synodal choir, my elder son Adrian conducts at Intercession Church. He is 17 years old, plays the cello, and last summer he performed with the Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra. He is in school, and will likely choose a career unrelated to music. As opposed to Russia, this is typical for those who live abroad, where most people work for the church on a volunteer basis.
In general, we try to attract young people to our choir. For the last few years, we have been inviting people 26 and younger. It doesn’t matter of a young man or woman has experience singing in the kliros. The Synodal Choir lets them sing at all-night vigil on Saturdays, and at Liturgy. We usually get together on Saturday morning, study the ustav, learn the tones, the podoben melodies, other compositions, then we order pizza, and the young people have some time to socialize before all-night vigil. Of those who attended these events, we now have two regular choir members.
– Are all the choir singers professionals?
– There are professional singers, there are amateurs who love church singing and are no worse than the professionals. Among them are children of immigrants born in America who grew up in church. There are professional musicians from Russia. Some of them attended church in their homeland, others came to the faith in America. There are Americans who accepted Orthodox Christianity as adults, and learned to read Russian and Church Slavonic. But we don’t have singers who come solely to earn some money.
– Petr Alexeevich, please tell us about the Synodal choir directors who preceded you.
– The first choir director was the composer Boris Mikhailovich Ledkovsky. He established the choir in 1952, when the Synod of the Church Abroad came from Germany to America, and settled on the West Side of Manhattan, in a very small space. Metropolitan Anastassy asked Boris Mikhailovich to put together a small choir. He did a great deal of work seeking out singers while at the same time composing music for similar small, and not always experienced, choirs in the diaspora.
Immigrants who came to America as a rule brought with them whatever church music from Russia they had, often of low quality. The repertoire of the so-called Moscow School was rarely performed. Characteristic of this musical movement was a return to ancient church melodies. But performing such music was difficult for small choirs. Other music was easier, but lower in quality. Boris Mikhailovich set out to raise the quality of singing. Ledkovsky’s music is intended for “small choirs,” but at the same time it is tastefully written.
His son, Alexander Borisovich, took over for him in the early 1970’s. He directed the Synodal Choir until 2002, and died in 2004.
Irina Mozyleva directed the choir until 2005; she is a professional singer with a remarkably beautiful voice. Now she is developing her singing career, but still participates in the more important divine services. Among these were services we recently performed which concentrated on the compositions of Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov. We devoted the services to the memory of this composer, who did in Moscow in 1944. Everyone was being evacuated because of the war, but he refused to leave.
Three years ago we performed similar services—all-night vigil and Divine Liturgy—with the music of Alexander Dmitrievich Kastalsky, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Kastalsky’s compositions are fairly complicated, but I think we sang them pretty well.
– Petr Alexeevich, I remember that your choir and other Moscow choirs sang at the divine services during the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion. But not everyone had the same opinion of that event.
– Indeed, that was a difficult time for the emigration. There were differences not only on the parish level, but within families. My parish in Glen Cove is considered conservative. Many there were reluctant to accept unification with Moscow, yet no one went into schism.
My family looked forward to this moment. My father-in-law, the Rector of Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, Protopriest George Larin, considered the signing of the Act very timely, while the cousin of my wife, Protopriest Serafim Gan, made his own contributions in the preparatory process. In fact, it was he who proposed that we participate in the Moscow celebrations.
Thirty-four people traveled to Moscow, mainly from the New York area, but there were also singers from Washington, DC, Chicago, California and Canada.
We included more music in the repertoire written by composers in the emigration who are little known in Russia: Boris Ledkovsky, the San Francisco composer and choir director Mikhail Konstantinov, works by the famous musicologist Ivan von Gardner, the Parisian composers Nikolai Kedrov and Mikhail Kovalevsky.
– Was it difficult to adapt to the acoustics of the main Cathedral of Russia, Christ the Savior Cathedral?
– In order to experience and grasp to the acoustics of that enormous Cathedral, I flew to Moscow in March 2007, two months before the celebrations. I met the Cathedral’s choir director, with whom we were to sing the main Liturgy on the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. It was only much later that we learned that we were going to sing with the choir of the esteemed Archimandrite Matthew (Mormyl) of Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra. Yes, in fact, we had to adapt to the acoustics in Christ the Savior Cathedral: the sound goes out and doesn’t return, so it is very difficult to gauge how the choir actually sounds. We were given the opportunity on the eve of the Ascension Liturgy to have a rehearsal in the Cathedral, which helped, of course.
The very first service that our choir sang in Moscow was in the church called Bolshoye Vozneseniye [the Large Ascension—transl.]. This was all-night vigil on the eve of the Ascension, a Patriarchal service, and we sang together with that church’s choir.
The next day, on Thursday, we arrived at Christ the Savior Cathedral about three hours before service began. On Saturday, we sang at Butovo Square together with the choir of Sretensky Monastery. At the invitation of the choir director of Danilov Monastery, we sang at all-night vigil there. On Sunday, we sang at Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow’s Kremlin.
All the services were completely different, and evoked various emotions in us. But the overall impression was astounding!
– And after that service you sang on the steps of Uspensky Cathedral!
– That was utterly spontaneous. Overall, we were all very inspired during that time.
Unfortunately, I have not traveled throughout Russia a great deal. I was in Moscow and Yaroslavl for the first time in 1990, with a group of young Russian professionals living abroad. One of those Sundays, before Cheesefare Week, we were able to attend a service at Yelokhovsky Cathedral. I remember that the current Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev served then, and Archdeacon Stefan Gavshev read a very inspirational passage from the Gospel on the Day of Judgment.
– After the reunification, the Synodal Choir of ROCOR has begun a tradition of singing with the choir of St Nicholas Cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate during a procession of the cross on Bright Saturday in Manhattan, and sings at Nativity celebrations a the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in New York… Where else, outside of New York, have you sang, and are you planning other events?
– In 1975, the Synodal Choir made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Everyone who went remembers it to this day, including the wife of our Cathedral’s Archdeacon Eugene Burbelo, Klavdia Pavlovna, and the wife of the late Boris Mikhailovich Ledkovsky and mother of Alexander Ledkovsky, Marina Viktorovna Ledkovsky. She has been singing in the Synodal Choir for 57 years. It would be great to organize another pilgrimage, and sing at the holy sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
I would also like to go to Kursk, where the Kursk-Root Icon first appeared; to sing with a male choir together with the men’s choirs of the monasteries of Russia and Ukraine.
– Petr Alexeevich, you had an opportunity to hear Russian choirs and how they are directed by today’s conductors. Whom among today’s choir directors might you strive to emulate?
– I especially remember the choir of the Church of St Nicholas in Tolmachy and its director, Alexei Puzakov. They singing in very churchly manner: prayerfully, purely, musically and just beautifully. Of the men’s choirs, it is of course the famous Sretensky Monastery Choir.
– What do you consider is the most important thing in church singing?
– One must remember that our main mission is to sing to God and help people pray. We must sing so that people understand the words. It is very important for the choir to sound unified, that one does not hear 25 voices, but a single sung prayer.
And of course, a tastefully-chosen repertoire means a great deal. Unfortunately, there is church music, and a good amount of it, which is not written beautifully. Such music should be avoided.
– Recently, on the eve of its feast day, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, returned from its regular tour of the parishes of the Russian diaspora to the Synodal Cathedral. Does the choir director notice a difference in how the choir sings depending on the presence or absence of the icon?
– Of course. The Kursk-Root Icon was at our own home more than once, and that is a great blessing. In the Synodal Cathedral, everyone’s mood is different when the Icon is “at home”: the clergymen, the singers, the worshipers, one senses this right away.