Russian Bells will clang at Fort Ross’ Harvest Festival in a special Russian Bell concert with Percussionist Victor Avdienko—Saturday, October 15, 2016
The majestic sound of Russian bells will fill the air at historic Fort Ross this Saturday as San Francisco Symphony Percussionist Victor Avdienko performs a special concert for the 4th annual Fort Ross-Seaview Wine and Harvest Festival. Since the founding of Fort Ross in 1812 by the Russian-American Company, a trading and fur trapping firm, Russian bells have had a place of prominence. They were utilized both as signal bells at the fort’s two sentry boxes located diagonally in its Northern and Southern corners and, after 1824, as church bells in the belfry of the fort’s Holy Trinity–Saint Nicholas Chapel. On Saturday, the peal of six Russian bells will serve a purely musical purpose in America’s Second Secular Russian Bell Concert which will take place at the Visitor’s Center at 1:10 pm. The concert is produced by Mark Galperin, General Manager of Blagovest Bells of Novato, the sole promoter of Russian bells and bell-ringing in the U.S.
The program will include a mix of traditional liturgical and contemporary secular “zvons” (peals) and improvisations—
“Perezvon”– a chain peal, from largest bell to smallest in order, used at the Blessing of the Water
Traditional Trezvons (three-part Russian bell peals)
“Festal Lenten Zvon”– a traditional Russian Peal from the famous belfry of the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin of the Rostov Veliky, Yaroslavl Region, Russia
“Optina Zvon”– a peal from Optina Pustyn, the famous Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple Monastery for men near Kozelsk, Kaluga Region, Russia
“Krasnyj Zvon” by Vladimir Petrovsky
Percussionist Victor Avdienko has performed, recorded, and toured with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) for 20 years. He was brought up in San Francisco’s Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church on Geary Street but, during those days, he never heard authentic Russian bells played live there. Instead, he heard plenty of recordings of majestic Russian bells which always fascinated him. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” with the San Francisco Symphony in the summer of 2014 was the first time authentic Russian bells were ever used for that very popular piece in the United States. Galperin organized the loan of those bells to SFS from San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. He had also lent Blagovest Bells’ 5-bell Russian demo peal to SFS for its Keeping Score Summer Institute in June 2009. The friendship between Galperin and Avdienko was solidified over their mutual love of bell music. Avdienko and Galperin’s first independent concert, America’s First Secular Russian Bell Concert was held at Fort Ross during the 3rd Fort Ross Harvest Festival.
Saturday’s outdoor concert at Fort Ross will occur rain or shine. In addition to Russian bells, the folk group Dolina will also be performing a number of traditional Russian and Cossak folk dances throughout the day.
To read ARThound’s 2014 feature article on SFS percussionist Victor Avdienko and the first Russian bells to play at Green Music Center’s famed Weill Hall, click here.
Details: The bell concert is 1:10 PM on Saturday, October 15, 2016 at the Fort Ross Visitor Center, Fort Ross State Historic Park. The concert is free but visitors must pay park admission of $20/car which includes entrance to the Fort Ross Harvest Festival. Fort Ross, is located 11 miles north of Jenner on Highway One and is the main tourist attraction between Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg.
The Fort Ross Harvest Festival is Saturday, October 15, 2016 from 10AM to 6PM and offers a full day of world-class wine tasting, a wine seminar featuring rare wines grown in the remote steep mountain top Seaview region, apple picking in a historic apple orchard, delicious local foods, historic crafts and music and Russian dancing, all set on the spectacular Sonoma Coast at Fort Ross State Historic Park. Entrance to the festival is $20/car and wine tasting tickets range from $40 to $90 depending on category of wine tasting.
Real Russian bells will clang at Weill Hall this Saturday when San Francisco Symphony plays Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”
San Francisco Symphony (SFS) regular guest percussionist Victor Avdienko was born and raised in San Francisco and regularly attended the Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church on Geary Street but, at that time, he never heard authentic Russian bells played live. Instead, he heard plenty of recordings of majestic Russian bells which always fascinated him. It was only when he visited San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in September 2012 and heard the rector, Father Stephan Meholick, play a real set of bronze church bells especially for him that he understood how special they were. After that, Avdienko championed the notion of featuring Russian bells in a SFS performance and dreamed of connecting with his Russian heritage through playing them.
On Saturday evening, he’ll have his dream fulfilled when the “peal” or set of Russian bronze bells that he will play will be featured, for the first time ever, in the Symphony’s All Tchaikovsky concert at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall and Lawn. Director of Summer Concerts Edwin Outwater will be conducting SFS and Macedonian guest pianist, Simon Trpčeski, from Skopje, will play the beloved Piano Concerto No. 1. The special bells will clang for a good minute at the end of Tchaikovsky’s well-known “1812 Festal Overture,” fulfilling Tchaikovsky’s vision of bells ringing in town church towers to celebrate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Their sound will be new and distinctive because Russian bells are polytonic (acoustical analog of polychromatic), meaning they are not tuned to any specific pitch like the orchestral bells or tubular bell chimes that we normally encounter when American orchestras perform. You can expect a rich chord of many different tones.
When ARThound learned that authentic Russian bells would be played for the “1812 Overture,” I couldn’t resist investigating further. The “1812” is a thunderous Russian tune that depicts Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812. That it became a popular 4th of July song in America during the height of the Cold War is a story in itself. In short—the “1812” always had a patriotic sound and was a great piece of music but it wasn’t until 1974, when the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler zipped it up, playing it with fireworks, real cannons and a coordinated steeple-bell choir, that it caught on like wildfire and became an American tradition. Including Russian bells is a shout-out to the “1812’s” true roots and an exciting new tradition for SFS.
I first heard the mesmerizing clang of Russian bells twenty-five years ago in Sofia, Bulgaria, at the St. Nikolai Church, whose bells were gifted to Bulgaria by Tsar Nicholas II. That rousing sound is so emblazoned in my memory that it seems like I heard it yesterday. I had no idea that North America’s foremost experts on Russian bells, Mark Galperin, was just down the road in Marin and that he has been championing their resurgence.
Galperin is a former physicist who immigrated to Marin in 1995. In 1998, he began collaborating with Father Stephan Meholick to build a bell collection for San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. Galperin also dutifully manages Blagovest Bells, the largest North American full service Russian bell company which has supplied over 140 churches in North America with Russian bells. He filled me in on some basics about Russian bells—history, theology, metallurgy, design and acoustics. (Detailed information can be found on the Blagovest Bells website, http://www.russianbells.com/.) Most important is that in Russian culture and history, church bells are holy and shrouded in mystery. Their clanging is said to have the power to bring people to repentance and to dissuade sin.
In the Russian Orthodox faith, bells are understood as holy, “aural icons” that project the voice of God. Before church bells are hung, they are consecrated. An interesting feature of Russian bells is that they are cast for a certain strike tone and they are finished when cast—there are no post-production adjustments. That means they don’t have a “pure” (abstract or machine-made) tone, but instead they have natural harmonics that give each bell a slightly distinctive voice, which Galperin poetically compares to the song of a nightingale—each nightingale singing its own song in its own distinctive voice, no two songs exactly alike but all nightingale songs, all uniquely beautiful. From the musician’s perspective, Russian bells are not tuned and therefore do not behave like most bells that American musicians are familiar with.
Galperin first collaborated with SFS when he lent Blagovest Bells’ 5-bell Russian demo peal to SFS for its Keeping Score Summer Institute in June 2009. It was there that father Stephan Meholick delighted Bay Area educators with his bell ringing and shared a vital aspect of Russian culture that these teachers could then pass one to their students. Galperin also handled the loan of the St. Nicholas bells to SFS for Saturday’s concert and, over the past few days, has spent countless hours making good on his “full service” guarantee, including testing some two dozen mallets with Avdienko to get a sound that best approximates the one made with a forged iron bell clapper. (See chart at bottom of article for detailed data on the bells) Galperin is quick to point out that once Americans (and most people in general) are exposed to authentic bells, they have a real interest in them and he has an explanation for why Russian bells aren’t more widely known—
“In both Soviet Russia and American, bells experienced their own genocide for different reasons,” explained Galperin. “In Russia, they were victims of the Communist ideology. In America, they were victims of so-called electronic progress which substituted real—and actually unsubstitutable bells—with safe electronics. Sadly, the current generation of Americans has no idea of the uniqueness of bell ringing, which is different every single time. Why is this important? It’s the same reason why you pay to go to the concert of a famous singer—because each time, the song is a little different and you have a new and unique performance of a piece.”
Galperin holds it as a good sign that the tradition of using of Russian bells in classical music has continued in America in the recent works of young composers such as the popular Russian-born American composer and pianist Lera Auerbach. She used a bell peal produced by Bloagvest Bells and recorded at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of San Anselmo (MP 3 below) in her well-received “Russian Requiem” (2007), co-commissioned by Musikfest Bremen, Philharmonische Gesellschaft Bremen and Semana de Musica Religiosa Cuenca.
Like most stories involving Russians that I’ve reported, some wonderful connections emerged. Galperin mentioned that Blagovest Bells outfitted Victor Avdienko’s Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church with a peal of 6 traditional Russian bells in 2003 and, since then, the bells are regularly rung there for Divine Services.
Festal Russian Orthodox Church Bell Ringing at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, San Anselmo. Lera Auerbach included this peal in her “Russian Requiem” (2007). Bell ringers: Fr. Stephen Meholick, Peg Golitzin, Juliana Kohl, Lea Kohl; produced by Blagovest Bells.
Pyatkov Chime by Andrei Dyachkov, led by Blagovestnik bells weighing 20,000 and 40,000 pounds, 110 seconds (courtesy Blagovest Bells)
Pyatkov Chime by Vladimir Petrovsky, called “Maestro” Petrovsky, 340 seconds (courtesy Blagovest Bells)
ARThound Interview: San Francisco Symphony guest percussionist, Victor Avdienko
When did you first hear authentic Russian bells?
Victor Avdienko: At the beginning of last season, we played Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 11 in G Minor” and needed four bells for the end of the last movement, so I went on a quest for bells which were very loud, pitched, and preferably real Russian bells. I was pointed to Mark Galperin, who gave me the history and playing tradition of Russian bells. I visited San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and met Father Stephan Meholick, who played a mini concert for me on their bells. Right then and there, I knew that I had to explore this further. It felt like I was reconnecting with something deeply Russian inside me. I’ve heard a lot of carillon music from my travels in Europe and I’ve always had that in my ear defining what bell ringing should be—that they can play tunes and melodies. The Russian style is different in that they don’t play melodies or tunes; it’s more of a prayer or meditative experience to ring these bells. Because the Russian bells aren’t pitched, we didn’t use them for the Shostakovich but I kept that sound deep in me.
What does it take to play these bells successfully?
Victor Avdienko: Ear plugs. You’re very close and you need protection. There are some definite techniques because you’re manipulating up to a dozen bells with just your four limbs. All the bell clappers are attached to strings and are either manipulated by a hand by pulling them or by foot pedals for the larger bells. One person can make a lot of sound but there are different patterns too, actual rhythms, which you can achieve with the smaller bells by holding the strings of 3 or 4 of them in one hand. Father Stephan showed me the ropes. As a percussionist, it was not too difficult to get familiar with it but, for an average parishioner, it would take many months or even years of serious practice to properly run the patterns.
Can you describe what happens for you musically in the “1812 Overture”?
Victor Avdienko: The piece is very well-known for its cannon fire that everyone looks forward to. If it’s played outdoors, they’ll often use real cannons fired off in the distance. For indoor concerts it’s usually done with a recording or with a really large drum. We’ll use a synthesized cannon sound on Saturday. The bells have always been more of an afterthought that we’ve handled with chimes. The specific passage that calls for bells is in the key of E-flat. The chimes we traditionally use can be tuned just like a xylophone or glockenspiel so you can actually play an E-flat major scale and it fits the piece and sounds like a bunch of bells in the background. When you play bells that have a definite pitch to them, you have to play in the key of E-flat for it to sound good, otherwise it just sounds like you’re hitting a bunch of random pitches. Russian bells aren’t pitched a certain way, so it’s going to be more a wall of sound coming out and it won’t make any difference which bell I hit because the bell will always sound the way it should sound. What Tchaikovsky had in mind when he wrote the piece was to have all the bells in the Russian town square play at the same time to sound like a jubilant celebration of victory over Napoleon. So we are taking it back to its authentic intention.
The bells occur twice—at the very end where there are cannons and full orchestra and that’s about a one minute section and there’s a section about two-thirds into the piece where we hear roughly the same Russian hymn that cellos open the piece with but, this time, the full orchestra is playing with the bells playing in the background. The mood is jubilant because this after the victory. I am looking forward to this. Mark and I have talked about this for two years now and I’m glad that the conductor was curious enough to let this happen.
What will you be hitting the bells with?
Victor Avdienko: I’m not sure yet. Normally, internal clappers are pulled by a string that is manipulated by a player. In the past, we’ve always used a rawhide mallet or a large acrylic beater. Mark Gaperin and I started out with about two dozen mallets. We tested about a dozen of them and settled on a special hard wood mallet engineered by a German percussion instrument design firm that very closely approximates the sound extracted by an actual bell clapper. Or, I may just go ahead and use the native forged iron clappers. It all depends on what I can get away with. We’ll either have all four bells arranged on the upper beam of a rack or they’ll be in a double tiered rack with three on top and one on the bottom.
Have you ever had a Russian conduct you in the “1812”?
Victor Avdienko: Most conductors just ‘play the ink’ as they say but when we get Russian conductors coming in, they will sometimes want to add some realism to the piece that most American orchestras don’t necessarily do. About ten years ago, Yuri Temirkanov (then Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic since 1988) asked for both a Russian choir to sing a church hymn for the opening of the overture and for real bells. At that time, I didn’t know Mark or of any Russian bells in the area, so we just pulled together all the bells we could get our hands on. SFS actually owns two European-style bells that we use for Berlioz’ “Symphony Fantastique” but those are pitched very strongly in C and G for that piece, so he sat us down and gave us a lesson in what proper Russian bell ringing should sound like and for me that was the beginning of my curiosity about Russian bells.
Any other special percussion effects in Saturday’s concert that you’re looking forward to?
Victor Avdienko: Tchaikovsky wrote very nice percussion parts. I’ve always really identified with his cymbal crashes because they are very colorful, explosive and impactful, occurring in the right moment and emotional context. In the past, for the “1812,” I’ve always really found myself in playing those cymbal crashes correctly because you have to make the sounds of artillery fire, a celebratory crash and complete jubilation and it almost requires three personalities to pull that off.
Concert Details: San Francisco Symphony’s All Tchaikovsky concert at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall and lawn is Saturday, June 26 at 8 p.m. All indoor seating is almost sold out. Lawn seating is still available at $25. Purchase tickets online here, or over the phone with the Sonoma State University Box Office at 866-955-6040. Tickets will also be available one hour prior to the performance (7 p.m.) at the Green Music Center box office. Immediately following the concert, there will be a fireworks display. Excellent Visibility: Views of the stage are amplified by giant video screens, giving everyone a “front row” experience. Snacks: A variety of food and beverages will be available for sale.
Directions: Green Music Center is located at 1801 East Cotati Drive, Rohnert Park. CA. Weill Hall and the Green Music Center are located on the campus of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road. From the South, take U.S. Highway 101 north to the Rohnert Park Expressway exit. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto Rohnert Park Expressway. Drive 2.2 miles to the Sonoma State University entrance on your right. From the North, take U.S. Highway 101 south to the Rohnert Park Expressway exit. At the end of the exit ramp turn left onto Rohnert Park Expressway. Drive 2.2 miles to the Sonoma State University entrance on your right.
Parking: Parking for this performance is complimentary. Ample parking, with excellent handicap availability, in the campus’ dedicated lot, right next to Weill Hall.