In the Russian Orthodox Church, all services are sung, and all singing is a capella. From the beginning of our parish, as in most Orthodox communities, appropriate singing has been and remains a priority.
It is recorded about our former pastor, Very Rev. Alexander Kukulevsky (1947-1957), that he devoted great attention to the choir and to the youth. As the parish entered a great period of growth in period of the next pastor, Very Rev. Dmitri Gisetti (1957-1979), much was built on the foundations which Fr. Alexander Kukulevsky and preceding pastors. The choir reached a great level of achievement, especially with a renown choir master from Bulgaria, Mikhail Milosheff, who used to direct the Sophia's main Cathedral choir as well as various lay and spiritual choirs in Western Europe, Canada and U.S.
In 1962 Hieromonk Hillary (Madison), came to the parish to inaugurate the early English language Divine Liturgy, and of course this necessitated choir music in English. At this time then, we had three distinct groups, the Slavonic choir, under the direction of I. Iwanjutenko, the English choir, under J. Evans, G. V. Michniuk, and D. Kilpatrick, and also a male quartet under the direction of L. Krupich, which however dissolved in 1978. Notably our choir sung for the well known film "Doctor Zhivago", for the opening sequence which contains parts of the Orthodox funeral rite. According to Fr. Hillary's reminiscences, the funeral of Feodor Karamazov in the less well known film "The Brothers Karamazov", was sung by the male quartet. Also of musical interest for the history of our cathedral, was the funeral, which took place here in 1943, of the famous Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who reposed in the Lord as a member of our parish.
Since then, the choir has been enriched by the labors of Alexander Ruggieri, current director of the Cambridge Singers, Vladimir Morosan, who went on to head the Liturgical music department of the Orthodox Church in America, and currently heads Musica Russica, and Vincent Peterson, (now Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco), as well as most recently, the contribution of Dr. Nicholas Craig Custer, currently director of the St. Nicholas choir in Saratoga, CA. All of the above have left the choir of our cathedral with a significant number of fine settings and arrangements.
Today we like to think of ourselves as really one cathedral choir. We sing jointly on the major feasts, and together at the Vigil Services and weekday services. We strive to maintain a high standard despite the difficulties of being a practically bi-lingual choir with members traveling as much as an hour one way to the Church. We strive to employ the finest in the Russian Liturgical Music tradition, with an increasing emphasis on the chant tradition such as is preserved in monastic singing. Currently, we sing from the typical Bakhmetev Obikhod for the 8 tones, as well as employing certain festal and special monastic melodies, such as our use of the Kiev Caves Monastery Chant for the Alleluia at Liturgy and the Prokimenon at Matins, and the occasional festal use of Podoben singing, or the more melodic Kievan Chant, of which the Bakhmetev Obikhod is a simplification.
At the retirement of Fr. Dmitri Gisetti, Fr. Stephan Fitzgerald became the rector of our parish. In 1987, he was tonsured a monk with the name Tikhon, (after St. Tikhon of Zadonsk), and elevated to the Episcopacy, being the ruling bishop of the Diocese of San Francisco and the West in the Orthodox Church in America. After His Grace's retirement, Bp.Tikhon remains at our parish, and we are often called upon to sing hierarchical services, and our Liturgical Practice has developed to a fuller level of observance. We now sing Psalm 33 following the "Blessed be the Name of the Lord" at the Divine Liturgy and at Great Vespers, as well as singing the Stikhera at the Beatitudes during the Third Antiphon of the Divine Liturgy. We continue to sing All-Night Vigil, (consisting of Vespers and Matins), every Saturday night and on the eves of feasts. Our Vigil services often draw visitors from other parishes, as well as from other confessions.
In addition to the beautification of our services by choral singing, we also observe what has become the common practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and always chant the Creed and the Lord's Prayer congregationally. We also congregationally sing the hymn "O my Queen most gracious" before our patronal icon, with which we always conclude the Vigil services.
The choir is currently conducted by Julia Azrael, who directs the early English Liturgy, and Vitaly Efimenkov, who directs the later Slavonic Liturgy and most weekday services. We are always interested in those who desire and are able to offer a their talent to the Lord in the choir, and either of us will be happy to integrate interested parties into this aspect of our Cathedral's life.
Liturgical singing in the choir is a labor, a work, and a ministry in the Church. We never turn away those willing or able, but sometimes new visitors, even if they have sung in a choir elsewhere, and are perfectly capable of reading and following the other singers so as not to disrupt, often have a better experience listening to, being ministered to by the singing on their first few visits. Then again, many are so accustomed to serving the Liturgy in this way that they experience their visit best singing with us on the kliros. If you would like to sing while visiting, or would like to try joining the choir, please feel free to contact Julia or Vitaly.
PLEASE NOTE, however, that according to the Church Canons only baptised Orhtodox Christians can sing in the Church choir.
Reader Yousuf Rassam
(edited by V. Efimenkov)