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Tuesday, May 15, 2007
The Tsar's Singers

Four Russian men, four black robes, four music folders, and a tuning fork added up to something heavenly tonight.

I suppose it would surprise no one that a Russophile who enjoys choral music would particularly love Russian Orthodox church music, as I do. It is an acquired taste, perhaps, but I acquired it more than two decades ago and have cultivated it ever since.

I haven't heard much of it live since I was in Moscow in 1987, when I asked around, found the Russian Orthodox Church with the best choir, and went there repeatedly for services. I have a well-used, substantial collection on compact disc, but it's not quite like being there.

According to Russian Orthodox doctrine, only the human voice is a worthy instrument to praise God. Consequently, all their church music is a capella (without accompaniment). Their services are liturgical, so there is a lot of singing. The text of the liturgy is not in Russian, but a closely related language, Church Slavonic.

Over the centuries, some of Russia's finest composers have set their hands to Russian church music. The best known effort in the United States is probably Sergei Rachmaninov's Vespers (1915, Opus 37). The sixth movement is as sublime a piece of sacred music as I have ever heard or can imagine on earth. A personal favorite is Tchaikovsky's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1878, Opus 41), which caused a bit of a scandal in pre-Revolution Russia by debuting in a concert hall instead of a church. Prominent in Russia but less known in the West is Alexander Gretchaninov, also a favorite of mine.

Why do I wax pedantic on this theme just now? It has to do with the concert I attended in Draper this evening, while the rest of you were watching the Jazz game. I was at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Draper, a superb venue for such things, though ten times larger than tonight's audience of 50 required.

Four Men, Four Black Robes, Four Folders of Music, and a Tuning Fork

The Konevets Quartet, four very talented male singers based in St. Petersburg and at the Konevets Monastery near there, happened to be passing through Utah on their way from Las Vegas to the Denver area. As I later learned, a contact in Indiana has a friend in the Utah music world, who in turn answered the Quartet's desire for a concert in Utah. I learned of the event a week ago, through the mailing list at VocalWorks.org, and arranged to be there.

There was no price of admission, just a request for a free will offering, which in part benefits the Konevets Monastery, one of many religious institutions which decayed during the Soviet years.

The first half of the concert was heavenly. The four gentlemen entered at the rear of the hall, clad in simple black robes. They walked up the center aisle to enthusiastic applause, took their places at the front, bowed deeply, opened their folders, took their pitch from the tuning fork, and burst into chant and song. They sang eleven liturgical pieces, some traditional, others more recent and attributed to composers such as Kedrov and Chesnokov. They sang mostly in Church Slavonic, but also briefly in Greek. Because of the liturgical nature of the first half of the program, the audience was asked to applaud only at the end, after the last sacred number.

The spacious church's acoustics were virtually ideal for such singing. Seemingly effortlessly, the four voices filled the air just as the choir does in a large Russian Orthodox sobor. Happily, too, 50 people applauding sounded like 500, which was the audience -- and the ovation -- they deserved.

Shirts and Pants This Time, but They Kept the Tuning Fork

After intermission, the second half of the concert was a mix of mostly Russian folksongs and Imperial (pre-Revolutionary) military songs, which were banned after the 1917 Revolution. I had heard most or all of the folksongs before, but none of the military songs.

Some songs were sad, some were jovial -- outright funny if you understood the Russian. All were superbly performed. The casual listener would likely have recognized "Shchedrik," a Ukrainian song known in English, with a different text, as "Carol of the Bells"; and "Ey, Ukhnyem," or "Song of the Volga Boatmen."

For all of their talent, the artists themselves seemed reasonably down-to-earth and were happy to converse for a few minutes in Russian after the concert. 

How Good Are They?

The most apt comparison I can offer, in terms of these gentlemen's vocal skill and the sheer delight of the concert experience, is my favorite British vocal group, The King's Singers. (Hence the title of this blog post.) Each of the four Russians seems to be an excellent soloist, but the ensemble focuses on harmony, not solo work. The resulting sound is exquisite. It is also distinctly Russian.

Final Thoughts

I have three regrets. First, the audience was only 50; it could have been 500. Second, the concert -- especially the first half -- had to end eventually. Third, this was their only Utah concert on this tour. With adequate publicity they might find appreciative audiences in St. George and Provo, too, and they're plenty good enough to appear as guest artists on a Sunday morning broadcast of Utah's most famous choir.

Maybe next time.

A quick look at the Internet suggests that the Konevets Quartet's CDs are much harder to find than the King's Singers', but perhaps it will get a little easier with time. This is not their first US tour; I hope it is not their last.

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