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MUSIC - December 26, 2001


MSU Russian Chorus offers Lansing different kind of holiday concert

Life tends to move at a slower pace in Russia, where kitchen conversations last late into the night, novels are thicker than oaks and railroads stretch on for thousands of miles. Next week, long after overstuffed Americans have disgorged half their holiday bounty back onto the refund desk at Wal-Mart, Russians will still look forward to the candle-lit Christmas of the Russian Orthodox Church, which does not arrive until Jan. 6.
For more than 30 years, a group of mid-Michigan singers has been keeping time with this age-old calendar by bringing Lansing a different kind of Christmas concert, full of haunting, snowdrift-deep harmonies, horizon-spanning chords and a vodka-hard shot of deep soul in the old Russian style. This year, the MSU Russian Chorus will stay true to its non-rushing traditions by presenting its annual Advent/Epiphany concert Jan. 4 at the Emanuel Lutheran Church.

The MSU Russian Chorus performs at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 4 at Emanuel Lutheran Church, 1001 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing
It’s free.

The chorus was just as defiantly late for its Christmas concert last year, and director Mary Black found that Siberian time was just the thing to unfurrow the brows of harried Westerners. To begin with, says Black, many people “weren’t quite ready to put away the Christmas feeling, but couldn’t have squeezed another event into December.” People also told her how great it was to hear “new” Christmas music for a change. That had to make her smile — after all, most of the group’s material (which includes Latvian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German, Bohemian and Moravian carols) has been around quite a bit longer than the wood in Bing Crosby’s oldest pipe.
As anyone who has been shopping during the last month or so can testify, Western Christmas music has long been stuck in two or three endlessly spooling channels. It took a committed group of singers to fuse together a living short-wave unit capable of transmitting strange and beautiful sounds from the other side of the world. The group’s origin harks back to the Cold War days of the 1950s, when Denis Mickiewicz, a Soviet Georgian émigré and concert pianist-turned-professor, formed the all-male Yale Russian Chorus. When Mickiewicz moved to MSU in 1968, he put together a second group, going co-ed this time (it was 1968, after all). When then-music major Mary Black was talked into trying out, she ended up in the rank and file for 10 years before taking over as director.
Over the years, the chorus’ strength has varied from four to 40 sub-woofing larynxes (it stands now at 10) and includes among its ranks an electrical engineer, two copy machine repairmen (evidently the Kim Philbys of the group), a legal secretary, a home-school mother, a retired English professor, a homemaker, a home-health aide and a Lansing Community College music professor. Black herself is the music librarian at MSU and a professional musician. The group usually does two concerts a year, often by invitation (by now they have become a fixture of Lansing’s “Silver Bells in the City” celebration). Although they specialize in the liturgical Orthodox repertoire, they also sing folk tunes and “art” music, tailoring their concerts to the occasion and setting.
The intensity and richness of their a cappella sound is not only the product of hard work, but also of historical necessity. While various Western churches long ago let in everything from million-dollar organs to amplified guitars, only one instrument is allowed to resound in the Russian Orthodox church — the human voice (mainly because of its manufacturer’s unique customer-service plan). A Westerner, thinking perhaps of the Taliban or Tipper Gore, might assume that externally-imposed limitations would only put a crimp in the development of an art form. In Russia, however, the hammer of necessity only seems to have driven the music’s leading edge deeper into the soil to tap into the very root of life. The absence of such distracting bells and whistles as, say, bells and whistles, only reminds us what well-tempered, resonant tubes of flesh people can be.





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