Sharomov Vocal Ensemble a Russian treat
By Kristina Church

An enthusiastic and appreciative crowd welcomed two choral groups to the Wilda Marston stage on Saturday evening, May 8 - one a local choir and one a group of visitors from across the sea. The Sharomov Vocal Ensemble is a professional quintet from Novosibirsk, Russia, in the heart of Siberia. The Russian American Colony Singers is a local group of musicians, Russian and non-Russian, dedicated to singing Russian music in all its styles. Both were in fine form during a varied program of mostly Russian and American choral music, which explored the wide-ranging musical backgrounds of both nations.

The Sharomov Vocal Ensemble opened the concert with two sacred classics in Russian: a setting of the psalm "Bless the Lord, Oh my soul" by Ippolitov-Ivanov, followed by Tchaikovsky's setting of the Credo. From their very first perfectly calibrated entrance, the quintet revealed a sublime blend, technical vocal mastery, and thoughtful expression. And what a treat to hear perfectly pronounced Russian lyrics! It's rare for American choirs to attempt pieces written in Russian, since vocalists are generally trained only in the Romance languages along with German, with the result that few of us have been adequately exposed to the rich Russian choral tradition. The fully textured harmonies of these sacred pieces, combined with the dark Slavic sounds of this beautiful language, showcased the capacity of Russian music to convey deep emotion and spirituality.

The quintet then proceeded to demonstrate their stylistic and cultural versatility by showing off their American repertoire. First came the luminous American traditional song, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, in a gorgeous and oft-performed arrangement by Virgil Thomson. Though their strong Russian accents were undeniably distracting to an ear used to flat American intonations, the quintet proved that stylistically at least, they're more than equal to the soulful sounds of our folk tradition.

The ensemble went on to perform a range of American songs and styles over the course of the evening, including well-known spirituals such as Swing Low and Elijah Rock, which gave Pavel Sharomov a chance to showcase his lower range (we would expect nothing less from a genuine Russian bass). Each arrangement was chosen with exquisite taste, combining complex harmonies and rhythms while preserving the essential simplicity of the traditional spiritual form. Elena Zabarskaya's warm, sweet soprano gave Down by the Riverside an irresistible jazz lilt, while Home on the Range featured ever-morphing modes, with solos by soprano Olga Ossipova, mezzo-soprano Ludmila Tyuhaeva, and tenor Alexander Zverev.

One of the hallmarks of this ensemble is its ability to step back and let the solo voice come through effortlessly. The lead voice never needs to over-sing or push volume, yet the backup voices come through clear and strong as well, without making an obvious dynamic downshift. It's as if a musical spotlight is beamed on the highlighted singer during his or her featured moments. The ensemble's superior blend is only occasionally compromised when the soprano line (doubled in pieces written for four parts) becomes just a trifle heavy, especially in the upper ranges.

The delights of the evening continued, as the quintet executed a series of short Russian romantic songs, after which the Russian American Colony Singers joined them onstage. Conducted by Zlata Lund, the R.A.C.S. re-entered after intermission clad in colorful traditional folk costume, and launched into a diverting collection of Russian folk songs of varied style: some comic, some fiery and dancelike, some poignant and contemplative. Baritone Jim Lanier gave an amusing interpretation of Mussorgsky's The Flea, a comic story-song about a king and his miniscule friend, while Andrew Zartman and Tim Fosket's voices were featured in the striking Evening Bells. The Colony Singers' selections ended with the challenging Barynja, after which the Sharomov Quintet returned for a few more numbers.

At this point, the ensemble had shed its formal finery in favor of black T-shirts and slacks, signaling an intention to set a more casual tone with its second-act selections. These included a humorous German madrigal known as Chicken, which the group rendered in excellent German, and an intriguing Siberian song identified in the program as Fisherman's, which began and ended with throat-singing by bass Sharomov. If you haven't heard this particular singing technique, you are in for a mind-blowing experience. The best way I can describe it is a cross between a human voice and a didgeridoo. Following this marvelous feat, the group dove into a John Cage piece entitled Story, explaining first that it was not a joke but a very serious work by an American composer. Story experiments with spoken rhythms, and sounds more like a group poem than a song, riffing on the words "Once upon a time when the world was round…" " The quintet's final selection was Name that Tune, an engaging medley of well-known classical tunes, set for five a cappella voices, perfect for showing off the group's virtuosity as well as its sense of fun.

The final moment of the concert was a sing-along to the group's theme song, Let There Be Peace on Earth. Unfortunately, not all of us know the song well enough to attempt it, so there was less than complete participation from the audience. Perhaps if we could have had the words printed in the program, we might have been braver about jumping into the stream of voices. Nonetheless, the sentiments expressed in the lyrics made for an appropriate and satisfying conclusion to an evening of wonderful music. What a stroke of good fortune for Anchorage to host such a top-flight ensemble for a series of concerts around our city. Anyone with an interest in choral singing will not want to miss the opportunity to hear them sing.