Yale Russian Chorus
At Sanders Theatre February 19 and 20
The director who programs an entire evening of a capella men's singing risks having the absence of variety spoil his effort. To program on top of that the music of a single country is to court danger, since the audience could tire as easily of the similarity of style. It is therefore fortunate that Russian music was put to such a test Friday night at Sanders Theatre. The Church music, with its full harmonies and low basses, stands in such contrast to the soldiers' songs, love ballads, and haunting Cossack melodies that there was sufficient variation to sustain the audience's interest.
Fully half the Yale Russian Chorus's program consisted of conductor Denis Mickiewicz's excellent arrangements. He showed an instinctively sure touch with the Russian folk idiom, and a good understanding of men's voices. The only exception to this was a modulation for solo tenor in "Kalinka," which must have been as uncomfortable for the singer as it was for the audience. Mr. Mickiewicz's chordal vocabulary was thankfully traditional, with the unfortunate exception of "A Maiden's Heart."
Although I have heard them sing better, the Chorus sounded very good Friday night. Assistant Conductor Dan Gsovsky (who conducted the entire program due to Mr. Mickiewicz's illness) seemed at times to be pulling the music out of them. They responded superbly, singing with much power and involvement, and covering a range of emotions from deep melancholy to fierce patriotism. Songs of the steppes, the Volga, and the Battle of Borodino were for them as charged with emotion as they are for most Russians. The audience was infected with their spirit, and literally stomped them back on stage for the second encore.
The Chorus achieved a fine blend, despite a profusion of soloists. Those voices with brilliant timbres were well covered, particularly in the soft passages. The tenors as a section were both strong and Iyric, a fact that must give their conductor great satisfaction, since most directors have to settle for one extreme or the other. The bass section, however, was not up to snuff. Two or three key men seemed to be missing. In the liturgical music, the all-important low basses were just not strong enough in the full sections, and demonstrated an alarming lack of sensitivity by being too loud in the soft passages.
I have seldom heard a chorus sing so unanimously. Technical details were executed to a man, providing in a song such as "I'll Go to the Valley" a pianissimo that Verdi would have been jealous of. When the director called for lightness, they sang like five men instead of fifty; when he called for force, they bowled the audience over.
Since its beginning in Yale's Russian Club eleven years ago, the Yale Russian Chorus has become world renowned for its singing, as well as for its unique contribution to our cultural exchange program. It has made six trips to the Soviet Union. The fact that these men not only sang in Russian, but were able to converse with the people about their own country in their own language added to the favorable impression their singing doubtless produced.