CYRIL DEACONOFF, Russian born and a graduate of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he studied composition and conducting, might have remained in the conservative safehold that still characterizes the country of his birth. Instead, he left Russia to come to the United States where he is now a citizen, and after earning a doctorate in conducting at Indiana University Bloomington, he struck out in new directions, largely based on his thirst for adventure and his decision to develop his career in an innovative hub like the SF Bay Area.
He is a creature of his relatively young age: the prevalence of technology in this corner of the world convinced him that it and music need to be joined in what he calls “a new musical language.” It is a daring bet, given that the average age of choral concerts in most of the country is 60. So far, the bet is turning out well. Deaconoff not only receives much positive press attention but has also received significant awards. His Two Choruses for Children’s Voices, with lyrics by Malkov, received one of the prizes at the Pushkin Composition contest in 1998 and was subsequently performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, along with a number of his other works. His String Quartet No. 1 was selected by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra for their concert of contemporary music. In 2011 the West Bay Opera performed his opera, The Last Tycoon, based on the F.Scott Fitzgerald novel, and his choral group, Voices of Silicon Valley, receives steady praise. He has a publisher, Boston-based EC Schirmer, and one day hopes to have enough time to submit his many compositions to other publishers.
The question is, where will he find the time? At the moment, Deaconoff is Artistic Director of Voices of Silicon Valley, Music Director/Organist at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in San Francisco, Music Director at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Belmont, Adjunct Faculty at Monterey Peninsula College and conductor of I Cantori, one of the oldest and most distinguished choruses in this area. To do all of this he has to travel for hours, sometimes in dense traffic, using the time to listen to a large collection of CDs, or to language tapes (he’s learning French). He can rightfully be called part of the “Freeway Philharmonic,” a term used for musicians who go from job to job throughout the Bay Area and beyond, often over long distances. Someone who chooses this life has to be dedicated, passionate and ambitious.
Ambitious is a good descriptor of Deaconoff, who is clearly aware of the challenges of his chosen path and also confident that it’s the right one on which to be. He came to Monterey to conduct I Cantori, a group that is known for its classical, old-world choral tradition, one that has matched the tastes of its audiences for many years, decades actually. Deaconoff is aware that audiences here may not be in synch with his contemporary bent (he doesn’t call it avant-garde), and if they are not, he is just as comfortable with the classical repertoire that singers and audiences here may prefer. But it is his nature to lead, and he is convinced that technology needs to be a part of a new musical language. “My favorite thing is innovative work that challenges people, even baffles them,” he says. One of his pieces calls for the audience to use an app of birdsong on their cell phones to accompany the singers. It was recently on the program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where, incidentally, he collaborates with the Music Technology and Applied Composition program. For some of his performances, he taps into the community of software geniuses who staff Silicon Valley companies. He says, “We need to figure out how to use technology in musical performance. This is our world now.” For his own efforts in this regard he has received positive reviews, most notably for a recent performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Stimmung, a rarely performed piece for voices and microphones by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, an electronic music pioneer who he regards as an important influence.
Other influencers, he says, are the entire French composition school and Russian stalwarts Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. His composition Canticles of Love, Despair and Hope, based on the poems of Emily Dickinson and San Juan de la Cruz, will receive its West Coast premiere at the I Cantori concerts on December 8 and 9. In this and in the program overall, it is clear that he has an affection for the Spanish language (he attended a Spanish school while he lived in Moscow). It is also a bridge to an important segment of the Monterey County community. But what really drives the texts for his music are “imagery and spirituality.” One of his compositions, “Lonesome Valley,” was inspired by the vast vista of the Midwestern plains. That seems very far from the use of cellphone accompaniment to a musical performance, but Deaconoff has incorporated all of the classical elements of his training not only as a composer and conductor but also as an organist, so that he can bring different worlds to his audiences. What is distinctive about his perspective is that he is looking a decade down the road, wondering what will have changed in classical music as a result of a society so dependent on technology. What will audiences want then that they disdain now? Only an open and curious mind will be able to detect it well before others. Deaconoff may be that mind.
At this point in his life, Deaconoff says he’d like to have more time to compose and to continue to innovate musically. He maintains that the audience is a collaborator in any performance, and that he hopes that his audiences will be open to new sonic experiences on which he, as a composer, would like to take them. That will be both the beauty and the challenge of seeing Cyril Deaconoff in action at the I Cantori concerts on December 8 and 9.
May the force be with him.