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Ardor of the Russian Soul

November 6, 2007

My Russian grandmother and the daughter she taught the songs she knew (my mother), both long since gone, would have been unable to keep from dancing in the aisles and cheering at Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall Sunday afternoon.
Joined by the renowned Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the Academy of Choral Art Choir of Moscow, under the direction of the American conductor Constantine Orbelian, the combined forces put on a show of vocal, choral, and orchestral music that ranged from the liturgical to folk, cabaret, and even rock. But it was Hvorostovsky, with his compact, lithe body swathed in smooth black and his perfect control of a beautiful, expressive baritone voice, who was the brilliant star of the show.

By his own admission, Hvorostovsky is not a believer. Yet in a selection of religious offerings, accompanied by only the youthful choir, his voice took on a fervency and warmth that surely belied his unbelief. But of course, he has that Russian soul: ardor and devotion suffused his unfaltering, perfectly supported legato. Come to Me, All You Who Labor, gospel verses from Matthew and John, were powerful and touching in their turn.

The choir, in the opening Cherubim Song, was beautifully controlled in its softer singing, and somewhat Slavically strident in the louder. They were an attractive group, the women in wine-dark velvet gowns, ranged in a single arc across the stage, the men in black behind them.

Accompanied by the orchestra, Hvorostovsky produced a keener, more incisive tone, as he extended his compass beyond the deeply felt warmth and sincerity of the liturgical songs and presented a group of dramatic arias from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.
Man of Many Moods
In these, the singer displayed, for example, the character of Gryaznoy, once used to taking a girl by force if he wanted her, but now tortured by a vision he is unable to get out of his head of a beautiful young girl to whom he has offered marriage but who has rejected him. "I am not the same man," he sings, and Hvorostovsky limns both the virile, brutal, cold-hearted man he used to be and the wretched soul who now mourns the loss of his former wild, strong-willed self.

His singing of Onegin's aria, "You wrote me a letter," rejecting Tatiana's offer of love, was self-righteously tender, while Prince Yeletsky's passionate love aria from The Queen of Spades brought cries of approbation from the audience, a good third of whom must have been Russian.

The second half of the concert was devoted to folk songs and what must be, to my untutored ears, the Russian equivalent of soft rock. Suffice it to say that the Russian cabaret or rock pieces, whose subject matter was invariably the passionate, suffering, longing Russian lover, came complete with a floor mike for the singer and a rhythm section: the sole double bass player of the orchestra plucking away and, somewhere in the depths of the stage, a snare drum and high-hat cymbals.

Among the folk songs, which were all in minor keys, Only Once stood out for me, with the singer's strenuously opened vowels fired by energy and passion. The pop-style How Young We Were and Tenderness were beautiful songs, and the closing song, I'm Grateful to You, pierced the soul almost unbearably. Gracing both the folk and cabaret songs were four additional instruments — two mandolins, balalaika, and accordion — taking center stage in front of the orchestra.

Increasingly younger girls, starting with full-grown and ending with a mere slip of a girl, brought bouquets of flowers at intervals from the audience to the singer — a charming touch. For the last presentation, Hvorostovsky bent down and took the child's fingers in his, flashing his brilliant smile. The audience cooed with delight.

Encores were the well-known and beloved Moscow Nights and Dark Eyes. Somewhere my Russian forbears must have been dancing in almost painfully ecstatic gestures of pure pleasure.

Stephanie Friedman, mezzo-soprano, is retired from more than three decades of singing in opera and concerts in the U.S. and abroad.