Russia sings praises of Morgan's choir

Concert: Singers from the Baltimore university bring Gershwin to St. Petersburg and win roars of approval.

January 07, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - With an uncharacteristic roar of approval from more than 1,300 people packed into every cranny of the gleaming, white-columned Philharmonia Hall, the Morgan State University Choir made its Russian debut last night at the fifth annual International Winter Festival, Arts Square.

The choir set its warmly blended, disciplined tones on George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, the finale of a program devoted to that composer, a favorite of festival founder and artistic director Yuri Temirkanov. After conducting the Morgan singers in these same excerpts at Meyerhoff Hall with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in November 2002, Temirkanov decided he had to have them at his festival here, which showcases his other orchestra, the famed St. Petersburg Philharmonic. He said he could guarantee that the choir would be enthusiastically received, and he was right.

Along with an emphatic and sustained round of rhythmic clapping came the kind of vociferous additions that American audiences routinely project when they are roused, but that Russians apparently save for the right occasion. The roar erupted when Nathan Carter, longtime director of the choir, appeared for a bow, which he shared with his young singers. There was another roar when Temirkanov unexpectedly decided to offer an encore - It Ain't Necessarily So, which found tenor Stephen Jones and the chorus having even more fun with the call-and-response elements of the swaggering song than they had the first time.

`I'm speechless'

In one more gesture of appreciation, the choir was applauded even after the concert was over. The audience was packed in the aisles heading for the exits and the only people left on the stage were the 80 choristers. As they began to walk off in single file, people stopped and turned to give each of the singers a final ovation.

And the Russians ain't heard nothin' yet - tonight, instead of sharing a program with an orchestra and soloists, the choir will be on its own to close the festival with a concert of spirituals, gospel and even a little Rachmaninoff.

"I'm speechless," Carter said backstage after last night's debut. He wasn't kidding; it took a while to get more out of him. "I'll probably be able to speak about it better after I sleep on it," he finally said, "but I feel we left an impression. Overall, this matches the best response we've ever had. The whole evening was like a celebration. And it seemed that maestro Temirkanov was caught up in the magic of it."

Affinity for Gershwin

People who heard Temirkanov lead the identical Gershwin program - the Porgy excerpts, Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris - with the BSO will recall the exuberance he demonstrated on the podium. His affinity for Gershwin might have been more pronounced here, and he communicated it strongly to his St. Petersburg musicians.

A few of the solo players sounded a little uncomfortable, as they had in rehearsal, with the quintessentially American idioms of these scores. (The famous clarinet solo that starts the Rhapsody, for example, was too neat.) But most of the ensemble's efforts struck home convincingly. Their body language - lots of smiles and even some swaying - conveyed a connection to the spirit of the music and the occasion.

The conductor, who has canceled his scheduled appearances with the BSO this weekend because of the lingering effects of a bad cold, had more of a spring in his step when he walked on and off stage than at earlier festival concerts. And he didn't hold back on the podium. But his ailment was noticeable when he greeted a long line of well-wishers in his dressing room after the concert.

"Temirkanov is one of the best conductors I've seen," said Colin Lett, a baritone in the Morgan choir, before he and his colleagues boarded a bus for the ride back to their hotel. "He's real smooth and very clear, but he doesn't just beat time. He shows you the styling with his hands and gives you the emotions."

Asked what they thought of the audience response, Lett, baritone James Glover and soprano Tyronda Marshall quickly came up with the same word: "Overwhelming." A similar description came from the three guest artists - Jones, soprano Kishna Davis and baritone Leon Williams. For Williams, last night's reception went a long way toward making up for the startling experience he had the night before.

Around 11 p.m. Monday, the baritone took a stroll alone on the Nevsky Prospect, a main thoroughfare near his hotel. Several uniformed men - believed to be a so-called security patrol, rather than official police - emerged from a van and demanded to see his identification. His passport was back at the hotel; his New York driver's license didn't placate them. "They kept telling me to get into the van and talk things over, but someone was in the driver's seat and there was no way I was going to get in," Williams said.

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