Alexandrov Red Army Song and Dance Ensemble | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

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Alexandrov Red Army Song and Dance Ensemble


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at the Auditorium Theatre

October 13-15

I'm not a particularly sentimental person, but I must admit that when the Auditorium Theatre's curtain rose to reveal the Red Army chorus--100 strong in their braid-ornamented uniforms--in front of two enormous American and Soviet flags side by side, I found my eyes filling unexpectedly with tears. It took 50 years, and the easing of bitter animosity, for the Alexandrov Red Army Song and Dance Ensemble to arrive on our shores, and the sight and sound of the chorus's opening songs, a rousing rendition in English of our national anthem followed by the Soviet anthem, could have melted a heart of stone.

The rest of the performance was equally reassuring about the possibility of peace and friendship between our nations. Thank goodness the chorus, founded by Alexander Alexandrov in 1928, does not celebrate the military in song. Military music is to music what Spam is to filet mignon, and the chorus knows the difference.

The skillfully designed program ranged from Russian folk songs to selections from Mussorgsky's opera, Khovanshchina, from a Spanish folk song sung in Spanish to "I Got Plenty of Nothin'" from Porgy and Bess in English. And just in case the audience was in danger of forgetting the occasion's political significance, it included a peace song, "Do the Russians Want War?" with reassuring lyrics by the poet Y. Yevtushenko and music by E. Kolmanovsky.

The chorus is a remarkably resonant and sensitive musical instrument. The singers are as accomplished in a cappella works as in numbers assisted by the folk orchestra. The voices have a masterful control and beauty of tone, and their pianissimi are extraordinarily delicate and provide sensitive accompaniment in support of a soloist. Their full-bodied tones can set the roof ringing, but they never shout. Although I was familiar with the group's recordings, the live performance, with voices depicting the approach and departure of a cavalry detachment, was a revelation. This was simply the best male concert chorus I've ever heard. The group also boasts seven male soloists, each of outstanding caliber. Especially noteworthy were tenor Vasili Shtefutsa, baritone Valeri Gavva, and basso Barseg Tumanyan, a soloist with the Armenian Opera.

Igor Agafonnikov is the principal conductor of the chorus, but he surrendered his baton to others for some songs, and left the podium to Vyacheslav Korobko for all the dance numbers.

The dance ensemble is a terrific, high-flying troupe, reminiscent of the Moiseyev Folk Ballet. In the first dance the men, unusually tall for male dancers, demonstrated once again that male Russian dancers' knees are held together by rubber bands. Their leaps were phenomenal, their presydkas--the famous Russian squatting dances--presented in such dazzling variety that the audience had no time to breathe between cheers. Their Sailor's Dance included a lively hornpipe, and the Cossacks' sword dance was breathtakingly daring. Since the 50s the dance ensemble has included a female contingent from the Bolshoi Ballet school. The women were lithe and pretty, fleet and flirtatious, and the folk costumes were simply gorgeous.

Curiously, the dancers' finale, Dance of the Elbe Meeting, which depicts the historic meeting between American and Soviet troops during World War II, is the weakest dance. Designed, I'd guess, for the ensemble's American debut as a reminder of the wartime alliance against the Nazis, it goes nowhere. There is a cute, short jitterbug and lots of benevolent feeling, but the dance itself has little emotional or choreographic impact.

For the grand finale, the chorus sang "God Bless America," which brought many in the audience to their feet in a rush of real warmth. And as an encore, the ensemble performed a bright, cheery Virginia reel. It was a great evening for song, dance, and goodwill.

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