Music: Singing through the changes

The Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Chorus performs a well-rounded repertoire.

The Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Chorus (photo credit: PR)
The Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Chorus
(photo credit: PR)
Fans of stirring choral music are in for a treat on June 12 at 1 p.m. when the century-old Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Chorus performs at the ICC in Jerusalem.
The ensemble was founded in 1910 by Mitrofan Pyatnitsky in humble enough circumstances. The first choristers were 18 farmers from the gubernias, or governates, of Voronezh, Ryazan and Smolensk, to the south and west of Moscow, and the chorus held its first performance in the modest confines of the Moscow Nobility Club on March 2, 1911.
As artistic director Alexandra Permikova notes, the singing group has been through quite a few changes during its 104-year history.
“Until me, the choir had four artistic directors,” she says. “So, on average, each lasts around 25 years, and each of us has brought some of our own vision and understanding.”
Permikova is, in fact, bucking that quarter century tenure and has been at the helm for quite a while longer.
“I first stepped into the studio [with the ensemble] in 1969, so I count it from then. I got my official papers, though, in 1971, strangely enough on April Fools’ Day.”
Permikova says that the choir has always been a forward-looking enterprise.
“Mitrofan Pyatnitsky brought genuine folk sounds and words into modern language,” she says.
That evolutionary dynamic continues today, largely fueled by the vim and vigor of the choristers.
”Ours is a young collective, and each year we recruit new faces who bring their own fresh coat of paint and their own vision,” explains Permikova.
The rural spirit is still very much in evidence, too.
“There are almost no artists from the large cities of Russia, so the choir is drawn from many different villages. At present, they are drawn from 31 different regions!” she says.
This necessarily keeps the choir’s genre spread at full stretch.
“You can imagine what this brings to the overall choir, as each brings with him/her traditions and characteristics of their region. Siberians join and bring their own distinct quadrille [dance music].
Northerners brought Vologda couplets, Vologda suffering. More still from central Russia [Voronezh, Penza, Lipetsk]. Then I start looking for those songs that are traditionally sung in those areas. It is important that artists sing songs from their native region so we can hear their honest natural roots,” she explains.
But it is not only rural heritage that informs the way the chorus goes about its business. There are plenty of contemporary works in the constantly evolving repertoire as well, including material from non-folky and non-classical climes.
“We take a very careful approach to the selection of works,” says the artistic director. “We watch closely what is performed on stage today – in both academic and pop singing – and carefully select appropriate songs for our repertoire. A good example of this is Igor Matvienko’s ‘Horse,’ which is near the top of our repertoire list and has become the most popular version of this hit.”
In addition to providing the public with quality entertainment, Permikova believes that the ensemble she heads has pride of place in her home country and that its influence goes far beyond its musical hinterland.
“The choir has always played a big role in general Russian and Soviet society. After 104 years we are known throughout Russia, almost imbibed like mother’s milk,” she says.
This is despite the seismic political changes that Russia and the former Soviet Union have undergone over the years.
“The respect afforded the choir and the understanding of its significance have not changed throughout these tumultuous decades,” continues Permikova, adding that, continued success notwithstanding, she and her colleagues never rest on their laurels. “This requires a lot of work, and we constantly rehearse to stay at the highest artistic level.”
Permikova feels that the Pyatnitsky outfit’s efforts are supported by an endemic love of locally produced music.
“Russian folk art resides in the genetics of the Russian people. Sometime it lies dormant, but it wakes frequently and is never lost, so it is not a comeback! At Russian wedding festivities, guests never sing songs in English. Even today’s young boys and girls, brought up on MTV, and later generations, will sing Russian folk [songs] with tears in their eyes and respect for the tradition of national culture in their hearts,” she asserts.
The proof of that pudding was provided at a recent gala concert.
“When we performed in Red Square on the 70th anniversary of the victory over Fascism, people were cheering us personally when the announcer introduced the choir,” says Permikova.
In addition to performing to homegrown audiences, Permikova and her vocalists also take their shows on the road. Thus far, the choir has given shows all over Europe, as well as in Canada, Japan, the US, Australia and New Zealand.
The artistic director is a strong believer in putting the message of Russian art out there and in the importance of preserving artistic heritage all over the world.
“Groups like ours are required to carry their culture all over the world, whether it is Russian folk art, folk art of India or Brazilian folk art. This is a very important mission. These traditions should be preserved to tell the world that there is such as art. I think it was a very correct decision to establish a special committee for the preservation of folk art of the entire planet at UNESCO. In principle, this is the main mission of such groups as the choir Pyatnitsky – to represent the best examples of folk art to all people around the globe,” she says.
Considering the tidal waves of fluctuating and often idiosyncratic Soviet political measures that have swept the country over the last century or so, when artists could often be the flavor of the month only to be suddenly summarily pilloried by the heads of state, it is nothing short of miraculous that the chorus has survived. As far as Permikova is concerned, the secret is to stick to the musical purview.
“Politics is not our task. Our task is to sing and dance at the highest level. If we had been politicized, then we would not have such a history – for 104 years!” she says.
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000; *6226; and buy/64565