Russian Chamber Chorus offers "Stories Spoken and Unspoken: Vocalises and Folk Songs"
by Karl Peterson for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 10, 2017

RCCNY: Stories Spoken and UnspokenThroughout music history, singers have looked to words for clues on how to best unlock music’s expressive potential. So what are they to do when the music has no words? That is the challenge for the first half of the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York’s spring 2017 concert, “Stories Spoken and Unspoken: Vocalises and Folk Songs.”

The songs without words, or “vocalises,” included in this program represent the varied inspirations for this genre. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote his Vocalise, possibly the most famous example of this genre, for soprano Antonina Nezhdanova in 1912. It approximates the sort of vocal line that a singer might use while practicing. But more than a mere warm-up melody, it is a showcase for the voice, allowing us to enjoy the sound of the voice unencumbered by words or dramatic meaning. Having been adapted for many different instrumental/vocal combinations, such as the arrangement performed here by composer/pianist Mikhail Zeiger for chorus, cello and piano, the piece is not completely devoid of dramatic import, the vocal lines and harmonies recalling the Russian Romanticism that is one of the hallmarks of the chorus’s style.

During the Soviet era, religious expression was forbidden. In 1973, Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) wrote a choral vocalise, Concerto in Memory of A. Yurlov, very much in the flavor of an Eastern Orthodox Panikhida (music for the repose of the departed, similar to a western Christian “Requiem”). Since the piece has no words, it sidestepped the state’s prohibition against religion, and therefore ostensibly could not be censored for religious content. The titles of the work’s first two sections – “Lament” and “Separation” – affirm its commemorative, lamentative nature. It stands today as a piece that signaled the revival of the suppressed Russian Orthodox musical tradition in the decades that followed.

Chant by Yuri Yukechev (born1947) is another wordless expression of spiritual feelings like the Sviridov Concerto. Its title and the structure of the piece, with a unison phrase sung by the women framing two repeated sections of choral music (the initial melody continues as a cantus firmus in the alto voice), is reminiscent of music from western liturgical traditions. While the parts move slowly for the most part, in half and whole notes, the voices trade more urgent phrases in quarter notes, giving more urgent expression to deep melancholy.

Perhaps the highest aim for a vocalise is to express those feelings that go beyond words, even experiences that go beyond emotions. Two of the vocalises on the program lead the listener in this direction. The chorus was very privileged recently to have composer Alisher Latif-Zade (born 1962) visit a rehearsal where his work Super astra ferri (Carried above the Stars), which is to receive its world premiere in this concert, was the focus of the evening’s work. He told the chorus how, though he has had a long career as a composer, writing many works, it is only in recent years that he felt ready to write for the voice. Apparently, he feels that composing choral music is a very high calling, worthy of only his best efforts. The listeners can say whether the composer has achieved his aim. For the chorus, having the experience of singing this beautiful piece has been very rewarding.

There is one other very special premiere to be made in the first half of the program. Edgar Girtain IV (born 1988) sang for a year with the Russian Chamber Chorus, and the group is very pleased to include one of his compositions, ENtroPY, in this concert. Entropy is of course a scientific term which means “gradual decline into disorder.” The title hints at an attempt to probe deep meanings about our very existence. It can be debated as to how that concept is represented musically – the highly ordered rich middle section certainly gives way to a more transparent, less complex texture at the conclusion, but perhaps the title is represented by musical moments throughout the piece? For the chorus, this is a very intriguing, promising introduction to Mr. Girtain’s music.

After the intermission, the music changes quite suddenly, with the Russian folk trio led by Tamara Volskaya making their entrance. Previous appearances by this group with the chorus have reputedly “brought the house down” and one can only anticipate that the effect on this occasion will be in the same vein. The trio will be joined by folk singer Irina Zagornova.

The trio’s performance leads perfectly into the program’s second half, featuring some favorite Russian folk songs in various choral arrangements. Included are the Four Russian Songs of Zachar Blyackher (born 1923), accompanied by Mikhail Zeiger on the piano. Two folk songs follow that feature the women of the chorus, recreating the earthy sound with which Russian peasants have sung these songs in villages for generations. Oy, Chei To Kon' (Oy, Somebody's Horse) is sung by the women alone, while Akh Ty, Step’ Shirokaya (Ah, You Wide Steppe) has the men joining for one verse. Another crowd-pleaser, Veniki (Brooms), arranged by Feodosy Rubtsov (1904-1986), starts in a deliberate fashion and speeds up until it arrives at a frenzied conclusion.

One final piece worth mentioning from the second half is Vecherniy zvon (Those Evening Bells), featuring tenor Sergey Tkachenko. Its origin is the stuff of legend. As far as can be determined, Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) first wrote a poem called “Those Evening Bells” which he claimed was based on a Russian poem (that has never been found). Then Russian poet Ivan Kozlov (1779–1840) made an adaptation, in effect a complete re-writing of the poem in Russian, and composer Alexander Alyabyev (1787-1851) set this second poem to music. A very popular song, there have been many settings of it created down through the years. While thus a Russian popular song, if upon hearing it, you detect a certain Irish lilt to it, perhaps Moore’s original inspiration is still making its presence known.


This concert will be performed Thursday, June 1, 2017 at 8:00 PM at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 3 West 65th Street (at Central Park West), Manhattan, and on Sunday, June 4, 2017 at 4:00 PM at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 236 East 31st Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues), also Manhattan. The chorus will be joined by Adrian Daurov, cello and Mikhail Zeiger, piano, and musical guests the Russian Trio (Tamara Volskaya, domra; Anatoliy Trofimov, bayan; and Leonid Bruk, contrabass-balalaika) and Russian folk singer Irina Zagornova. Tickets are $25 at the door, $20 for seniors 65+ and students. For additional information, visit www.rccny.org or call (212) 928-1402.

Karl Peterson sings with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York. His writings appear on the Dairy Free Traveler blog and in Savoring Gotham, edited by Andrew F. Smith and published by Oxford University Press.