Morgan choir fills Grand Hall with versatility and wonder

Spirituals, Russian music have those in audience singing choristers' praises

St. Petersburg, 2004

January 08, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - The Morgan State University Choir had the whole audience in its hands last night at the Grand Hall of the Philharmonia, a regal room that has welcomed a lot of great music and music-makers since the 1830s. But this was the first time an African-American chorus and the embracing sounds of venerable spirituals and contemporary gospel songs filled the place.

"This concert is so unusual for us," said Dmitri Izotov, a young Russian who listened intently along the side of the well-filled hall. During the first half of the program, which included "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Elijah Rock," Izotov said (through an interpreter) that he felt a strong temptation: "When we listened to the traditional American spirituals, we fell in love with these singers. I wanted to dance. I think everybody wanted to dance with the music. But we knew we couldn't do this. We had to be still."

Well, not entirely. It didn't take long before the infectious rhythms of the music and the choir's incisive phrasing, especially when the style kicked up a notch to gospel, had the audience clapping along. Loudly leading that accompaniment with a broad smile was Yuri Temirkanov, who had invited the ensemble to St. Petersburg to participate in his International Winter Festival, Arts Square. "This was a very great concert, very great," he said during a post-performance reception where he was besieged by choristers wanting to get their pictures taken with him.

(Health report: Temirkanov, dogged by a bad cold, seems to have rounded the corner. Although he canceled his first appearances of the new year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend, he is expected to be back on the Meyerhoff Hall podium next week.)

Sporting a distinctive variation on formal concert dress - white ruffles and tails (with a subtle, sequined trim) - Nathan Carter put his choir through its well-drilled paces in a program designed to demonstrate versatility. "While I wanted primarily to present music of our heritage," he said, "I also included a couple numbers to show our versatility."

The first opportunity for that demonstration came in the first half, when the chorus followed a richly arranged group of spirituals with excerpts from one of the monuments of Russian a cappella choral literature, Rachmaninoff's Vespers. It was a new experience for the choristers to learn a piece in the far-from-easy Russian language. (Temirkanov pronounced their pronunciation "very good.")

Aided by a bass section capable of successfully diving down to the subterranean notes required by the Vespers and the startlingly pure-toned voice of solo countertenor Cortez Mitchell, the choir made quite an impression with this gesture to the hometown crowd. "The Rachmaninoff was perfect," Izotov said. "It is such a pleasure for us that these Americans would learn Russian music for this tour."

The first of the evening's four encores was also in Russian - a folk song sung directly to Temirkanov, invited to the stage by Carter for a hearty round of cheers from the chorus. The crowd ate it up, clapping along in time to the jaunty tune of "The Snow-Ball Tree."

And there was even more Russian music in the regular program, though not in any conventional manner. Darin Atwater, the Baltimore-based conductor and composer, created two new gospel songs for the choir's debut in this country. One was affectingly spun out of Rachmaninoff's soulful Vocalise, the other out of a muscular theme from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Both provided brilliant, if unlikely, reinforcement of the message of this year's festival - musical bonds between Russia and America.

"This is a wonderful choir that touches our souls," Alexander Uteshev, a professor at the St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy, said through an interpreter. "They have a very unique approach to all kinds of music. And Nathan Carter's conducting is masterful."

Backstage after the performance, weary Morgan singer Leah Brown finally had a chance to sit down. "It was a great night," she said, "but wearing comfortable shoes is the key."

She appeared revived at the reception, where mingling with the choristers and the Baltimore delegation were several young Russians. (All the other festival audiences attracted young people. Going by looks alone, each crowd had a much lower median age than any encountered at regular BSO performances, with remarkably few gray-haired listeners - assuming that St. Petersburg is not the hair dye capital of Russia.)

Mikhail Yevlanov was one of those young listeners, and one more accustomed to attending pop music concerts. "It's the first time I ever heard anything like this," he said through an interpreter. "It's a great thing that African-American people have come here. We almost never see them in our country. There are a lot of prejudiced people in Russia, unfortunately. Theirs is a totally different culture from ours, and we have much to learn about them. We need to have more contact with them."

That kind of reaction would be music to Carter's ears. "What matters most in the end is that we communicated with people," he said. "Something happened out there, and that's what we're about. I was moved myself."

After taking in the eye-boggling Hermitage museum today, the Morgan choir heads back to Baltimore tomorrow.

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