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October 24, 2007

From Russia, con brio

Los Angeles Times (US):

Sharing the Royce Hall stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company's crumbled-looking set for "King Lear," the Russian Patriarchate Choir of Moscow was a potent symbol of renewal when this male a cappella ensemble made its West Coast debut Monday as part of the UCLA Live series.

After all, it wasn't that long ago that performing Russian Orthodox Church music in the Soviet Union endangered the careers of these singers and their director, Anatoly Grindenko.

But there they were -- or nine of them, anyway -- having overcome politics (the choir was formed in 1983, eight years before the Soviet breakup) and a flight delay (half the members arrived two hours before the performance). Various other issues prevented the remaining three from making the engagement.

Their program traversed the myriad wonders and changes of style in Russian chant and polyphony from the 16th to the 20th centuries. A set of four Russian folk songs and three encores completed the evening.

Interpretation of early music notation is an evolving, contentious enterprise, San Diego-based conductor Vladimir Morosan informed listeners in excellent program notes. (Distribution of texts to the audience would have been helpful too. Reviewers got them.) So some of the tangy dissonances may not have been historically accurate. But how thrilling they were.

From the rolling, pure and direct lines of a 16th century call to worship, the program progressed through the delicate, spectral colors of a 17th century introductory Psalm at Vespers to an 18th century drone-based version of the first three Psalms.

A return to the 16th century showed that music then was not monolithic. In "Lord, I Call Upon Thee," tenor Andrey Bashkov sang a sweet, fervent melodic line that might have been a love song. A Eucharistic canon, on the other hand, was assertive and crushingly dissonant. "Hymn to the Mother of God" was lofty in its quiet serenity.

By the time Rachmaninoff wrote his beautiful Vespers in 1915, music had become more personal, warm, arguably sentimental. Bashkov again applied his expressive tenor wonderfully to the solos in Rachmaninoff's "Bless the Lord, O My Soul," and the rest of the chorus responded with hushed, deep-felt tones. Bass Yury Vichyakov plumbed the depths in the composer's "Lord, Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart." Bass Oleg Kovalev closed the religious set with Goncharov's humble "Before Thy Cross We Bow Down."

In the set of folk songs and encores, baritone Andrey Zhuravlev was the powerful soloist in "Legend of Twelve Brigands," "Petersburg Road" and a Cossack song, while tenor Viktor Balkarov often added lusty, ringing enthusiasm.

When the program repeats tonight in Costa Mesa, one hopes more singers will be there.

Posted by acapnews at October 24, 2007 9:03 PM


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