The Russian Alexandrov Red Army Choir and Ensemble - Wow!
In the late 70s my late father, in his infinite wisdom, took me to the new NAC to see what was then commonly referred to as the Soviet Red Army Chorus. All things Soviet in those days were mysterious and framed in anxiety and just not like 'us'(sic). The musicianship preceded the ensemble and the cultural curiosities abounded. The prowess of the vocalists and dancers was intensely anticipated. The concert did not disappoint. It was stunning, luxurious and inspiring. I remember leaving so impressed I tried for days to sing the same low notes of the ensemble's then star soloist with exuberance but little luck still learning the boundaries of my newly changing and sometimes embarrassingly uncontrollable voice.
This past September 8th I repeated the gesture and took my son to see the Russian Alexandrov Red Army Chorus and Ensemble (RARACE) at Toronto's Sony Centre. They were performing in Toronto after a successful show in Ottawa (August 30th, 2011) as part of their 2011 Canadian tour and as part of the Quebec City International Festival of Military Bands. In addition to Ottawa and Toronto the show also appeared in Montreal and Quebec City. This was the production's seventh visit to the city (the last on this tour). The RARACE serves as the official army choir of the Russian armed forces. The troupe includes soloists, a male choir and dancers who are all accompanied by a full orchestra playing a mix of traditional Russian and western instruments, including the balalaika, the domra, the bayan, the double bass, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments. The ensemble's name comes from the founder and first director, Alexander V. Alexandrov. He was a composer, conductor, and professor of the Moscow Conservatory and wrote the National Anthem of the Russian Federation. The first time the ensemble visited Toronto was in 1961 and their last appearance was in 1989.
The evening opened with a sobering solemn acknowledgement of the recent plane crash in Russia that claimed the lives of some former NHL players and members of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team. The interim Russian Consul General introduced a tribute and then a moment of silence accompanied by a mournful vocal dirge by the choir. This was followed by a stirring performance of the Canadian and Russian national anthems which had the crowd roused up with national and cultural fervor.
The show was a non-stop cultural journey packed with memorable melodies inspiring many memories for several in the crowd. Everyone became an honorary Russian for three marvellous hours that night! The brilliance of national costume tantalized the eyes and the swirling, acrobatic dancing performed with ease amazed the crowd. When melodies were recognized by some audience members, whispered singing could be hear throughout. Art and music share that wonderful power and that was evident throughout the evening. At every turn there was an opportunity to clap along to rhythmic numbers and even sing along. Patriotic songs, new and old, were accompanied by projections on video screens above the choir. There were comedic routines that did not fail to illicit laughter and pokes in ribs. The imagery of glorious Russian battles and re-enactments, former Soviet-style factories and working-the-land imagery was engaging not only in its grandeur but also through the way it was presented. The haunting, romantic and seductive tonality of the balalaika and the incredible range of the bass notes of the vocalists gave the evening its sparkle. In essence, the audience was immersed into a stirring and engaging visual history lesson.
It was evident through their reactions that the audience was wildly impressed. At times, personally, the performers took my own breath away. The lasting quality of so many of the tunes and renditions of timeless popular music kept the crowd captivated. I was transported back to my first experience with my father so many years ago...The evening commanded, demanded and accompanied attention. It stirred deep emotion and memories.
The excited chatter heard in the lobby and on Front Street as we spilled out of the complex was testament to an evening well enjoyed and time suspended by the engaging, spirited and musical treat that is the Russian Alexandrov Red Army Choir and Ensemble.
(All photographs courtesy: David Cannon and thanks to Victoria Lord for hospitality and promotional information)
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