Moscow Boys Choir Concert
November 23, 2003 - Lubbock, Texas
In today's world, 'free' things usually come 'with a catch'. But that was not the case for this wonderful concert at Lubbock's First United Methodist Church. There was some reserved seating, but it was several rows back from the front. And although the tickets said that there would be no seating until ten minutes before the concert, we were allowed in 45 minutes prior to the event, probably because of the bone-chilling, windy weather in downtown Lubbock. The huge sanctuary quickly filled. Dr. Gordon McMillan, Minister of Music, estimated that 1,200 were seated when the concert began. Dr. McMillan, in his welcoming remarks, mentioned that the Moscow Boys Choir had sung for 3,000 people the previous evening in Midland, Texas, and that they would be driving all the way to Rhode Island for their next performance. He also invited everyone to a reception which would follow the concert.
Seated on the front row, I immediately recognized Mr. Leonid Baklushin, Choir Master and Conductor, from last year's concert in Wichita, Kansas, as he and his choir entered. Risers were not necessary, since the choir stood on the red, carpeted steps which led up from the congregational seating level. I was only a few feet from the entire group. Mr. Alexei Nesterenko, Accompanist, and his page turner, seated themselves at the piano to my left. Two microphones for boy soloists were positioned on each side of the middle aisle.
I immediately noticed that this was a somewhat younger choir than the one I enjoyed so much in 2002. I guessed the oldest of the seven men on the back row to be about 35-- the others probably in their 20s. Of the 18 boys standing below, only three or four of them seemed to be old enough to have changed voices. Boys enrolled at The Moscow Boys Capella must be at least nine to perform for audiences, and the front row included several who could not have been any older.
The choir's first song was a spirited "All The Angels in the Sky Rejoiceth" by S. Degtiarev, followed by "Koliakdi", a Traditional Russian Carol. Then came "O Holy Night", featuring two soloists, and the Old English carols "Masters In This Hall" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". By now the audience had experienced the amazing dynamics for which these boys and men are so famous. Conductor Baklushin seemed to keep their full 'power' in reserve most of the time, but when he decided to use it, you would have thought the choir to be at least double its size. Having been involved in recording since my high school days, I found myself wondering what types of microphones could adequately handle the soaring high notes of the sopranos!
Keeping with their concert theme of "Christmas Around the World", the choir next sang "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful", the Spanish carol "Fum! Fum! Fum!", "Angels We Have Heard On High" and the J.S. Bach/Charles Gounod "Ave Maria". The audience seemed to especially enjoy the African-American spiritual "L'Allelujah"-- the men's voices gave it a texture which would have been impossible for a SSAA boychoir to produce.
Mozart's "Veni! Sancti Spiritus!" was performed with crisply enunciated Latin, and Handel's "Hallelujah" (from the oratorio 'Messiah') concluded the concert's first half. As per tradition, everyone rose to their feet as Accompanist Nesterenko played the introduction. At about two minutes into the piece, Director Baklushin brought the choir down to a subdued "King of Kings... and Lord of Lords...", then back up to full volume. The masterful conclusion was additionally illuminated by the pianist's own embellishments. The audience remained standing with long, sustained applause prior to the choir exiting for a fifteen minute intermission.
The concert's second half was pure delight, beginning in English with John Rutter's arrangement of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and the always popular "Silver Bells". The bells coming from the choir were a hidden mystery until the member who played them was called to the front to take his bow. "Christmas in Killarney" featured treble soloist Andrei Suchkov, and "What Child Is This?" (Greensleeves) was accompanied on the guitar by choir member Boris Kadnikov. "Jingle Bells", an arrangement by A DeVito, was followed by the traditional Jewish song of celebration, "Hava Nagila", unaccompanied except for a short piano introduction. "Silent Night" was followed by the Ukrainian "Schedrick" ("Carol of the Bells") which was also sung a cappella.
The song perhaps most identified with the Moscow Boys Choir, "Evening Bells", profoundly affected the audience through Choir Master Baklushin's tenor solo of this beloved Russian folk song. His performance, backed by the choir, was filled with emotion, and received a spontaneous standing ovation!
"Moscow Nights", a song which has enjoyed some popularity in the United States, came right before the choir's big 'fun song' of the evening, "The Twelve Days of Christmas". This was the only time the boys were encouraged to 'ham it up' as several of the boys came down front to do their 'days' as solo parts. Having heard and seen last November's performance, I knew how much fun this one would be for the boys and their audience. Difficult to describe in a review, this is one you just have to attend to fully appreciate! At its conclusion, sets of boys were called to the front to bow as they received additional applause. And it was very obvious that their choir master also enjoyed all the fun.
Samuel Ward's "America, the Beautiful" was the next selection. On the last verse, Mr. Baklushin turned toward the audience to encourage us to join the choir. The audience again stood as we sang along, and this disguised what would certainly have been a standing ovation anyway. The final selection was another traditional Russian folk song, "Kalinka". During the following applause, the accompanist stood (and others came forward) to take bows, even including one of the younger boys-- taking a bow as he retrieved the conductor's music from its stand.
I have enjoyed seven live concerts by the Vienna Choir Boys, one by the American Boychoir and the Moscow choir's 2002 Wichita, Kansas concert; but this was the first time I have had the opportunity to attend a reception for a boychoir. The boys enjoyed the punch and brownies, but appeared to also appreciate all of the attention lavished upon them. Even though the younger ones knew little or no English, they cheerfully signed programs while some of the older boys sold CDs and cassette tapes. Somewhere between the sanctuary and the reception most of the boys had separated themselves from their bow ties, but they were happy to pose for photos anyway. When I asked one of the teenage choir members if he spoke English, his answer was the standard European "a little", which I have found to really mean "a lot". Since their choir master had not spoken a single word during last year's and this year's concerts, I had assumed that he spoke only Russian. But I was wrong about that. I asked him to be in some photos, explaining that they would be used on a boychoir Internet site, and he immediately agreed.
How wonderfully things have changed since these congenial people were behind Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" and members of President Reagan's "Evil Empire"! They are truly 'survivors', having endured revolutions, staggering World War II casualties, murderous dictatorships, and horrible economic conditions. I only wish some of the other Russian choirs could afford to tour the United States and bless us with their mastery of choral music.
Many good wishes,
Gene in Amarillo
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