The program in Ashdod opened with a bold and jubilant performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s “Messiah”. In a setting for voices only, the choir members’ stable, dynamic and brightly-timbred singing held one’s attention in the absence of the composer’s festive brassy and percussive orchestral backing. From the initial works on the program, we were quickly to become aware of the skillful representation of instrumental roles in the arrangements and performance of the choir’s unique repertoire. These included sung versions of J.S.Bach’s Invention in F-major - keyboard music sung with vibrancy and attention to contrapuntal textures - and the precise and polished singing of the “Badinerie” from Bach’s Suite no.2, its virtuosic flute solo presenting no stumbling block to the singers. Both these interpretations followed the Swingle Singers concept of different sung syllables, producing a vivid “instrumental” soundscape. For their choral version of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”, some of the women sang the melody, with other choir members evoking the sound of muted bells in lush, velvety textures. In the Alleluia from Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate” K.165, soprano Serafima Kaniashna presented the solo in a sympathetic and sincere manner, with the other singers performing the orchestral score in a flexible mix of various different syllables, interspersed with some “alleluia”s. Then, with delightful transparency and lyricism, Kontorovich and his singers captured the richness of Romantic harmonies in one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”. For a short visit to the world of opera, Serafima Kaniashna was the soloist in Norma’s wistful plea to the moon goddess in “Casta diva” (Chaste goddess) from Bellini’s “Norma”, the choir taking on the role of both orchestra and opera chorus.
Then to the program’s Russian content, beginning with the luxuriant singing of a hymn by prolific church music composer Pavel Chesnikov (1877-1944), the bass singers’ substantial low register singing reminding the listener from where these singers come. Tenor Andrei Bashkov’s tender singing of “Evening Song” with an evocative backing of bells and long drawn-out sounds all coming together in natural and gently flexed performance displayed the kind of precision and collaboration of only very seasoned artists. Following their rich, nostalgic and poignant singing of “Moscow Nights” (1955, Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi – music, Mikhail Matusovsky – lyrics), the audience relished every enticing, come-hither moment of “Kalinka”, with tenor soloist Platon Greco enjoying it no less, its sweetly sentimental moments alternating with wild, carefree and brilliantly presented dancelike rhythms:
‘Juniper, juniper, juniper, my juniper,
In the garden there’s the berry, my raspberry.
Under the pine, under the green pine,
Lay me down to sleep.
Oh you dear pine, you green pine,
Don’t you rustle so loudly over me
Beautiful maid, dear maid,
Please fall in love with me!’
Leaving Russia, Maestro Lev Kontorovich and his singers then took the listener to the Americas – North and South. And what a treat it was to hear soprano Olga Taran in a performance so stylistically correct and so utterly engaging of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. From there to Argentinean composer Ástor Piazzolla’s emotionally charged and sophisticated tango rhapsody “Adiós Nonino” (composed in 1959, following his father’s death) in singing that captured so well the piece’s Latin American bitter-sweet warmth, its excitement, heartbreak and mystery. Following the Colombian song “Prende la vela” (Light the Candle) by Eduardo Lucho Bermúdez (1912-1994), actually a “cumbia” - a syncopated frenetic dance – in which tenor soloist Wiachislav Verubiov and his fellow singers gave it their all, the Latin American segment ended with a virtuosic performance of “Mambo” by Cuban composer Guido López-Gavilán (b.1944), a piece bristling with complex vocal-, speech- and percussive effects, a true tour-de-force.
Especially for its Israel visit, the ensemble prepared and sang its own poignant version of “Kol Nidrei” (minus the verbal text), the sacred Jewish prayer that opens the Day of Atonement service, then to sweep the audience off its feet with a vocal version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”, the delicate but frenzied buzzing of the almost-visible bee moving around the stage from group to group. For their two encores, Professor Kontorovich and the Masters of Choral Singing gave a mellifluous and moving reading of Israeli composer Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”, sending the audience home with a jaunty, upbeat rendering of the modern Israeli folk song “Hava nagila” (Let Us Rejoice).
In performance abundant in interest, beauty, precision, stylistic attention and superb teamwork, Maestro Kontorovich and the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing” offered the audience an evening of choral singing of the highest standard.