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August 26, 2005

Piety vital to Russian choir's sound

Newark Star Ledger (NJ):

Russian male choirs are bass heavy and dark-sounding in tone -- or so the stereotype goes. Conductor Anatoly Grindenko, who brings his Russian Patriarchate Choir to Lincoln Center for its U.S. debut performances this weekend, would beg to differ. "It is a false idea about the Russian vocal school," Grindenko wrote in an online interview before leaving Moscow to travel to New York. "It may have been formed under the influence of Russian immigrants who were bending backward to please Western audiences. The Russian folk song suffered especially (from this perception); it was suddenly tied in with a tavern, vodka and a bublik (a traditional Russian version of a bagel), with an added pseudo-Gypsy touch."

Audiences should expect no such atmosphere from this weekend's performances of the choir, which gave a program of mixed Russian liturgical and folk music as its U.S. debut performance last evening and will perform the famous Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrisostom Friday night in the first of two closing performances of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

"The truth is that professional Russian choir singing is, in its essence, church singing," says Grindenko, who studied Gregorian chant while studying cello at Moscow Conservatory. Struck by the similar roots of early Russian chant, Grindenko formed in 1983 the Patriarchate Choir, an active ecclesiastical choir that uses 12 male singers (ages 27 to 50) and regularly tours Europe. "Religious service is the reason for and heart of this art. That is why, if the majority of singers in the choir do not share the religious spirit, it significantly affects the sound. Despite a flawless delivery, it would only be an imitation of church singing."

With such high spiritual standards, Grindenko's group -- two first tenors, two second tenors, one tenor who can sing either, three baritones and four basses -- specializes in unearthing old Russian liturgical masterworks and using historical singing techniques to "show audiences the beauty of Old Russian singing."

Russian choirs traditionally sing a cappella; to accommodate its Mostly Mozart hosts, the Patriarchate choir will also join an American group, the professional Concert Chorale of New York led by James Bagwell, to sing Mozart's Mass in C minor both Friday and Saturday nights. How will the choirs blend? Grindenko points out that Mozart and Bach, while not on his choristers' daily diet, are necessary components of his singers' vocal training. Bagwell, who will be responsible for getting the two choirs in sync in just two rehearsals, is not worried.

"I think it's just going to be a matter of matching vowel sounds," Bagwell says. "I've heard their recordings, and theirs is not a heavy sound. After all, music-making is a hybrid exercise; there is no such thing, really, as authenticity. You try to capture the spirit of the piece." Bagwell's observations will undoubtedly please Grindenko, who says his choir's lighter, more fluid and transparent blend of low and high male voices is more historically accurate. Most of all, though, the Russian conductor is hoping for a Mozart performance that is both cleanly sung and profound -- making it uniquely Russian. "Traditional Russian art -- whether professional or folk -- is essentially very intimate and heartfelt," Grindenko says.

Posted by acapnews at August 26, 2005 8:54 PM