Moscow Boys Choir Concert

November 22, 2002 - Wichita, Kansas

The first irony which came to my mind as I drove to Wichita was the fact that I was going to a concert by the Moscow Boys Choir on the 39th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (I recall Kennedy having a few problems with the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics concerning some missiles in Cuba.) I would experience another 'How about that!' moment just as soon as I saw the program: Parts of John W. Peterson's "Night of Miracles" were to be sung by the boys and men from Russia! My church choir sang the entire cantata back around 1970, and had someone told me then that I would one day be hearing some of it sung by an all male choir from Moscow, I would have been very skeptical!

This concert, a part of the Newman University Fine Arts Series for 2002-2003, was presented in their recently constructed 390 seat De Mattias Fine Arts Center. The concert was sold-out. In fact, I was told that they had turned 70 people away that very day. My seat was right on the front row, and I was about fifteen feet from the choir.

Publicity photos for the Moscow Boys Choir show 44 members. As the curtains opened, there were 32, which I assume is a somewhat smaller group chosen for touring purposes. Sadly, several of the singers were either ill before the concert or became ill during the performance. One young man left the stage near the end of the first half, and when the choir returned after intermission, there were only 28. The final number standing at the end totaled 26-- more about that later.

As the first pieces were sung, I saw very few smiling faces-- I was beginning to wonder if current Choir Master and Conductor Mr. Leonid Baklushin, was as strict a taskmaster was was former director Victor S. Popov (See my short review and video of/from 'Voices of the Heart' --second from top on that page.) But I was later very relieved to see that the boys smiled and became more animated when they sang what boys might think of as 'the fun stuff'.

Before I get into the individual selections performed, a comment about the makeup of this group: I counted seven 'men' on the back row, mostly I estimated as in their 20s, but my guess was that one of the gentlemen would never see 40 again. All the other boys had unchanged voices, with perhaps two or three of the older ones being capable of tenor parts. The choir produced a very impressive, full SATB sound, even when the numbers began to decrease.

The repertoire fully supported the tour's theme of "Christmas Around The World". Now a few words about several, but not all, of the evening's selections. The first half included such favorites as "Silver Bells" with piano and triangle accompaniment, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "O! Tannenbaum", and a traditional Spanish carol, "Fum! Fum! Fum!". José Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" featured a double duet of boys out front and chorister Boris Kadnikov on guitar. "Hava Nagila" was the first piece to feature the boys and men at what I would term 'full volume'-- If there had been 'rafters', they would have 'rattled'! "Silent Night" was sung in both English and German.

What seemed to begin as a traditional performance of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" soon became much fun for the boys and their audience, as the youngest boys sang solo parts out front and eventually brought many laughs when they changed their voices and expressions as each of the 'gifts' were counted again!

My favorite for the entire evening came just before intermission: The 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel's MESSIAH. I thought it was as commanding and joyful as any effort I have ever heard. I especially liked the choir's staccato emphasis on "King--of--Kings" and "Lord--of--Lords". (Back before the curtains opened I had discussed the program with a young lady who sat next to me, and we were wondering if the audience should stand, as is the custom when much more of MESSIAH is performed. As pianist Mr. Alexei Nesterenko hit the first notes and the choir began to sing-- there was obviously uncertainty about what to do. But then the lighting director brought the auditorium lights back up as a cue to stand-- and we did!)  The audience remained standing and gave enthusiastic applause as the curtains closed.

After Intermission, Pianist Nesterenko was very impressive as he accompanied the choir for Vivaldi's "Gloria In Excelsis". We were treated to a beautiful version of "Ave Maria" and an English rendition of the Beethoven/von Schiller "Ode To Joy". The opening (and closing) verses of the previously mentioned "Night of Miracles" was powerful and majestic, and Conductor Baklushin sang one of the cantata's solo sections, "Sleep, Holy Child". -- It was just a matter of personal taste, but I didn't care for Leonard Bernstein's "Gloria/Kyrie", although the choir sang it well, complete with tambourine. You could hear a fairly strong accent when the choir sang in English, but I didn't know Latin, German or Spanish well enough to discern if the accents were present in them or not. Of all the songs, "Christmas in Killarney" seemed to display their mastery of other languages best of all-- Boris Kartashev, a boy who looked to be 13 or 14, did the solo part. -- The selection of Russian folk songs, while of course unfamiliar, were very entertaining. Then came a very happy version of "Jingle Bells", followed by "The Little Drummer Boy".

The concert's finale featured "America, The Beautiful"-- Conductor Baklushin turned toward the audience and encouraged us to sing along on the final verse. Following a standing ovation the choir sang "Kalinka", another traditional Russian folk song.

Then came a series of bows by individuals and small groups in the choir. The photo you see, above right, was taken as these sopranos looked up to see one of the older members coming out front for his bow.

I realize this is a very long review, but I must mention three other things: First, Choir Master Baklushin knew well how to use 'The Cute Factor'! The youngest boys, some who appeared to be only eight or nine years old, were encouraged to show the joys of being their age (as in 'The Twelve Days'). Another example: During the final bows, the shortest boy came out front to retrieve the music-- and stopped to take an extra, last minute bow, before he took the music from the stand and left the stage. The audience loved it!

Second, having previously helped with some boychoir concerts and tours, I detected sincere concern among the boys-- for each other: During one of the second half's performances, a very small soprano on the end of the front row, at left from the audience-- began to look quite ill. His eyes would close from time to time, and you could tell he was in great discomfort, but he held on. One of the boys behind him, older by probably only one or two years, exchanged some words with the ailing youngster as soon as the song concluded. As the conductor returned from his walk to the other side of the stage during acknowledgement of the applause, the older boy indicated to him by emphatic eye movements-- that his younger compatriot could no longer continue. It was then and only then that the boys received 'the nod', and the miserable little boy walked off stage. I believe this showed not just concern that the sick boy could have fainted or lost his evening meal, thereby disrupting concert protocol, but also the pure empathy and concern by one boy for a 'brother'.

Finally, the Moscow Boys Choir used no music-- everything was memorized.   And not a single word of English or any other language was spoken during the entire concert, which supported our belief that music is indeed a Universal Language. Even though the MBC has earned a well-deserved worldwide reputation, the Wichita concert showed this reviewer that they 'put their pants on one leg at a time' just like all boychoirs.

What's that under the ticket above? When one of the Newman University officials found out that I had driven 363 miles (590 km) to attend, he thanked me for coming and gave me an official Newman University 'shot glass' with a piece of Russian candy in it!

Many good wishes,

Gene in Amarillo

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