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Preview and Appreciation: The Russian Chamber Art Society on Founder Vera Danchenko-Stern’s Festive Birthday Concert

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There’s an addictive quality to the events of the Russian Chamber Art Society, sort of like discovering a pastime or sport that you just have to follow once you learn about it.

Maybe that’s because the RCAS, which offers Washington the inexhaustible array of Russian vocal music across four events a year, makes its evenings so unexpectedly fun. Perhaps it’s the way that the RCAS has never had to repeat a program in its nearly 12-year history, even if sometimes an individual song or suite of songs fits into two differently themed concerts.

Or it may be a carefully designed practice that founder Vera Danchenko-Stern implemented from the very first RCAS concert on Super Bowl Sunday in 2006. (Vera says she was too unaware to avoid the scheduling conflict, although maybe any Steelers and Seahawks fans in Washington caught onto the series later.) She deliberately splits the performing roster for almost every program across a mix of both native Russian speakers and Americans who have independently learned the genres of Russian opera and Russian art song.

Vera Danchenko-Stern.

The fact that both groups seem to equally shine on the RCAS concert stage probably has to do with how many of them learned this material with Vera at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore or working at Washington National Opera, where she is Russian diction coach.

All of these reasons – or any others that RCAS fans can think of – will be celebrated at a special RCAS concert event this Friday evening, December 8, in honor of Vera Danchenko-Stern’s 75th birthday. I’ll be the first to haul out the cliché that Vera is 75 years young, because in her case it works. Anyone who doubts that is welcome to come to RCAS for the first time and anticipate the inevitable moment at the after-concert party – it’s a brilliant idea for classical music: around 90 minutes of music, then a party – when Vera spies you out as a new visitor, grabs your arm, and tells you there are five other people in the room who you just have to meet.

Vera Danchenko-Stern emigrated from the Soviet Union, after a six-month hiatus in Rome, to Toronto in 1979. She says she knew very little English at the time, but like many other Russians, she was fluent in French. That was sufficient to land her an initial job as a pianist at the National Ballet School of Canada.

Vera was prepared to work in a French boutique in Toronto if she had to change fields to make a living. But it never came to that as she listened intently to the conversations around her. “English came to me in blocks,” Vera says. “I never took one class in English.” And with that she finally made her way onto the faculty of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Her move to Washington came in 1990 via social connections. A friend of hers here wanted to set her up with Lev Stern of the Voice of America. A couple of phone calls and some visits to Washington later – including one involving the continuing Russian tradition of an additional New Year’s Party on the “old style” Julian calendar, where the slippage over the centuries has New Year’s Eve falling around our January 13 – and she and Lev Stern decided to get married. Mr. Stern lived to be involved in the founding of the RCAS in 2006, and while he passed away in 2009, his legacy continues to be celebrated in the vitality of the organization.

Once settled in this area, Vera began work at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory on the piano faculty. But she soon engineered a switch to the voice faculty because she felt she could make a more lasting and unique impact there. She recalls key Russian opera assignments with what was originally known as Washington Opera in productions during the 1990s of The Tsar’s Bride by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky.

It wasn’t just about the main roles and the star singers. Vera particularly points with pride to the numerous members of the Washington Opera chorus who subsequently chose, when doing their individual auditions in New York or for regional companies, to present a Russian aria rather than the more expected Italian, French or English because of the confidence they had gained in singing the Russian language.

Vera takes special note of a 2005 Washington National Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans where she coached the chorus for Italian soprano Mirella Freni in her final starring role at age 70. Legendary Washington Post critic Tim Page went directly for the marvel of Miss Freni singing in Russian while effectively portraying a role – that of Joan of Arc – more than 50 years junior to the performer’s age.

Vera herself loves to disabuse the notion that Russian is “hard” or “dark,” immediately drawing a connection between the vocal and diction techniques of Italian bel canto singing and the production of Russian lyrics. Just ask her and she’ll give you some examples, right on the spot.

Given the birthday celebration, Friday evening’s RCAS concert will take a different tack than usual for its first half. Instead of vocal music, the focus will be directly on Vera at the piano together with her brother, the esteemed international violinist Victor Danchenko. They will perform duo works by Mozart, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

The second half of the concert will revert to the Russian art song format, along with the appearance of some native Russian instruments, particularly the “bayan,” which I’ve previously described as an accordion with a few extra bells and whistles. Several popular past RCAS vocalists in the usual combination of native speakers and American specialists in the Russian repertoire will perform, notably including the charismatic baritone Timothy Mix and soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, whose strong but also very pleasing vocal timbre and phrasing is a match for both operatic and musical theater-oriented ears.

And don’t worry! English translations to all the songs will be handed out to all attendees, as always at RCAS events. My strong recommendation is to read them before or after, but put the paper aside during the actual vocal performances. The sound of the Russian is too good with these performers not to enjoy with all of your attention in the moment.

Stars of the RCAS: A Celebration of the 75th Birthday of Vera Danchenko-Stern will be presented on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. at La Maison Française, The Embassy of France – 4101 Reservoir Road, in Washington, DC. For complete season information about the Russian Chamber Art Society, see their season schedule.

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