The Red Army Choir in Montreal : A Highly Professional Concert Charged with Emotion

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

As part of an international tour celebrating its 90th anniversary the Red Army Choir, under the direction of its artistic director Gennadiy Sachenyuk, gave seven performances at the Maison symphonique de Montréal from December 26 to 30.

For just over two hours the 75 singers and musicians, accompanied by Quebec songstress Isabelle Boulay for four songs, offered a program mainly composed of traditional Russian songs and Christmas tunes. Towards the concert’s end, in a beautiful and highly significant gesture, Isabelle Boulay interpreted L’Hymne à la beauté du monde (Hymn to the Beauty of the World) by Luc Plamondon, popularized by Diane Dufresne, while the Choir and a soloist interpreted Mon pays by Gilles Vigneault. The seven performances were almost sold out and during the last concert, which I attended, the audience was made up of people of all ages, including many families obviously delighted to be there and appreciative of the extraordinary talent of the ensemble, which has continued performing since its founding in 1928.

The Red Army Choir, whose official name is the Alexandrov Academic Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, was established to assist the new society that the October Revolution of 1917 had given rise to. Amongst its accomplishments are the performances it gave at the front during the Soviet Union’s patriotic struggle against the Nazi invasion and its march to Berlin, alongside its allies which included Canada, to defeat Nazism. The ensemble pursued its activities during the Cold War period until the dismantling of the Soviet Union, then continued to perform under the Russian Federation. It also survived a terrible tragedy on December 25th, 2016 when 64 of its members, including its Artistic Director, were killed in a plane crash in Russia. The group’s concerts around the world and the appreciation expressed by audiences assisted greatly in it overcoming the tragedy. The ensemble is part of the universal heritage of world culture.

During the first part of the performance the audience was highly appreciative of the power and aesthetics emanating from the choir-soloists-orchestra ensemble in its interpretation of traditional Russian pieces. Although there was a strong measure of voice harmonization in the choir’s interpretation it mainly sought the unison of voices and communication of the main melody, which were obviously dear to the choir and orchestra and stirring for the audience. The orchestra’s rendition was also sober and elegant, lending itself to the melody and clearly defining the rhythms. The ensemble seeks to communicate with rather than impress the public. And so the audience claps and even hums once it recognizes the melody.

A sublime moment was the a capella interpretation of the song Oh My Vast Steppe by the choir, an evocation of deep Russia where the choir succeeds in conveying a sense of power and wide-open space while singing pianissimo. All vocal ensembles dream of producing power without relying solely on volume through a perfect balance between the tessituras, in this case the tenors, baritones and basses. This was a moment of intense emotion, greeted by a moving silence followed by loud applause.

The same can be said for the performance of Plain, My Plain, with a discreet accompaniment of percussion and muted trumpets which created the atmosphere for the choir’s very hushed interpretation.

Kudos to the very talented soloists, notably Valery Gavva, Maksim Maklakov and Alexander Kruze. The first is a renowned bass, a choir member for some 30 years. His is the typical deep bass with a sonorous and powerful voice that Russia seems to hold the secret to. He sang, amongst others, the well-known Otchi Tchornye (Dark Eyes in English) with a voice full of expression and rhythm that takes hold of you. He was also very friendly and engaging with the public, which is a feature of the entire ensemble. Maksim Maklakov is a young baritone with a rich voice who could also be an excellent opera singer and Alexander Kruze is a lyrical tenor with a pleasant tone and accurate intonation. Clearly the Red Army Choir is endowed with different talents in the various registers of male voices.

The orchestra itself is excellent, alert, always striving to support the vocal interpretation in a sober and poetic way. The orchestra’s members themselves are clearly virtuosos. This was demonstrated when balalaika player Mikhail Nikiforov, accompanied by the orchestra, gave an interpretation of Kamarinskaya full of virtuosity and humour.

Following the interpretation by the choir of the Christmas classics Jingle Bells and Silent Night, Isabelle Boulay joined the group with her magnificent voice to perform Les trois cloches (The Three Bells) formerly immortalized by Edith Piaf and the Compagnons de la chanson. Isabelle said that she was very honoured to sing with the Red Army Choir, whose “beauty, dignity and integrity” she praised. She continued with White Christmas and L’enfant au tambour (The Little Drummer Boy), performed very solemnly and emotionally, in perfect symbiosis with the choir.

In addition to the interpretation of other Russian classics which included Kalinka and Katiouchka, the concert’s end was marked by the performance of two Quebec classics, L’Hymne à la beauté du monde and Mon Pays.

The intensity of emotion was further heightened in the concert hall as a result of the songs chosen, which in my view was not accidental. It was a direct reference to the context in which human beings are living at the present time, concerned and in search of solutions that favour the planet and human beings.

L’Hymne à la beauté du monde, the classic by Luc Plamondon, which we associate with the voice of Diane Dufresne, says, amongst other things (our translation):

Don’t kill the beauty of the world                                                                                                                           Don’t kill the beauty of the world                                                                                                                                  Don’t kill the beauty of the world                                                                                                                                Every flower every tree that we kill                                                                                                                         Comes back to kill us in turn

[…]

Don’t kill the beauty of the world                                                                                                                                 Let’s make the earth a big garden                                                                                                                           For those who will come after us                                                                                                                               After us

Isabelle sang it with solemnity, in a well projected voice, the perfect instrument for an anthem. Then, in fluent French, a soloist, accompanied by the choir, interpreted Mon Pays, by Gilles Vigneault, which tells us:

From this great lonesome country
I call out before becoming quiet
To all men on earth
My house is your house
Between its four walls of ice
use my time and my space
To prepare the fire, the place
For humans on the horizon
And humans are of my race

What a great crowning touch for this concert marked by such a high level of communication with the public. When all the performers took their curtain call, it was to tumultuous and moving applause. Bravo to the Red Army Choir, bravo for such high-quality culture that brings us closer together as human beings!

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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