November 15, 2013 - Russian Russian Bel Canto, the Embassy of Austria, Washington, DC

'Russian Bel Canto Rediscovered at Austrian Embassy Performance'

The Russian Chamber Art Society presented a recital of Russian Bel Canto, performing music by Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, as part of the Austrian Cultural Forum series in Washington, DC.

Mme. Vera Danchenko-Stern, the artistic director of the Society, is on a mission to share with audiences the often overlooked Russian Bel Canto repertoire that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Not only did Mme. Danchenko give a virtuosic pianistic performance in her ensemble recital with the equally brilliant tenor Nils Neubert and baritone Timothy Mix, but through their combined great artistry and choice of musical selections they captured the Russian Bel Canto era of music and brought it to life to a contemporary audience.

Bel Canto is a music genre that flourished in Italy from the mid18th century through the 19th century and it is largely identified with the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Bel canto is characterized by the tonal beauty of the voice executing a melodic line in a very smooth, legato style fluidly encompassing the entire vocal range.

A prominent music critic and composer of the 1840s, Alexander Serov, wrote in listening to a performance of a Glinka Russian Bel Canto art song…… “In the smooth, plastic, expressive melody there was a blending of Italian voluptuousness, with a gloom, weariness, and sadness that was purely Slav”. Both tenor Neubert’s and baritone Mix’s passionate vocal interpretations embodied that Russian melancholy.
Russian Bel Canto was inspired by the arrival of Italian Opera in the mid- 18th century in Russia. For over a century, Italian Opera dominated the opera scene in Russia. Notably, Glinka is identified with introducing Bel Canto in Russia after traveling to Italy, and as an accomplished singer and pianist he experienced first -hand the techniques of the Bel Canto style.

Why the Russian Bel Canto repertoire is not more widely performed on the concert scene today can perhaps be explained not only by the dominance of German, French and Italian composers in art song programming, but because of the dominance and popularity of the orchestral, operatic ,and pianistic repertoire of the great Russian composers… and perhaps because of the remnants of cold war politics, making inroads on artistic expression.

During an interlude, Mr. Neubert addressed the audience and stated that “the reason one becomes a musician is because of the beautiful music and poetry. In the Russian repertoire the depth of poetry and craftsmanship of the music is at the top. It has been a great gift to be coached by Mme. Danchenko in Russian diction, and this is my first time to sing to a live audience in Russian.”

Similarly, baritone Mr. Timothy Mix paid tribute to Mme. Danchenko in her quest to bring Russian Bel Canto to a wider audience. Mr. Mix, who studied with Mme. Danchenko in college, stated “there is a saying… everything in moderation……however when it comes to delving into the darkest depth of Russian music and studying with Vera Danchenko-Stern nothing should be in moderation.”    

One of the spectacular moments of the evening was the performance of Glinka’s Trio Pathetique for clarinet, bassoon and piano performed by world renown clarinetist Julian Milkis, bassoonist Donald Shore and pianist Vera Danchenko-Stern. Composed by Glinka when he was 28 at Lake Como it bears the composer’s inscription, “I have known love only by the pain it causes.” It is that Russian bel canto message of pain, suffering and melancholy that was passionately delivered by Julian Milkis and Donald Shore with the virtuosity of Vera Danchenko-Stern

The Russian Chamber Art Society will return to the Austrian Embassy on February 14,2014., Henri Georges Polgar

'Russian Chamber Art Society Ensemble: Russian Bel Canto at the Embassy of Austria'

On Friday evening, the Russian Chamber Art Society, led by Artistic Director Vera Danchenko-Stern, presented Russian Bel Canto, a lovely concert of Russian vocal masterpieces composed by Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov. The concert, which featured the artistry of Nils Neubert (tenor), Timothy Mix (baritone), Julian Milkis (clarinet), Donald Shore (bassoon), and Vera Danchenko-Stern (piano), was hosted by the Embassy of Austria.

The concert began and ended with duets by Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov featuring Nils Neubert and Timothy Mix, with Vera Danchenko-Stern at piano. In between, these most talented and accomplished young singers took to the stage to perform individually, with Ms. Danchenko-Stern accompanying.

Neubert, born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, and trained at Juilliard and Columbia, impressed with his pleading voice, quivering emotion, lyrical style, and distinctive vibrato. Singing his first concert in the Russian language, he endeared himself to the heavily Russian populated audience when he shared this fact and offered humble appreciation to Vera Danchenko-Stern for her assistance in providing diction coaching.

Timothy Mix, who garnered critical acclaim in his award-winning performance as Edward Gaines in the New York premiere of Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s opera Margaret Garner, wowed the audience with his enormous and pure baritone voice, strong upper range, and glorious, rumbling low register. Mix has a commanding presence that played very well in a concert of Russian music, music which he admitted translates to him as “nothing in moderation.”

Taking her place at a beautiful Bösendorfer piano, an elegantly dressed and coiffed Vera Danchenko-Stern accompanied Neubert and Mix with expressive playing and passion that provided perfect support for their performances. Her love for the music she performed was expressed through her playing, but was also evident as while playing she silently sang each piece on the program. While many in the room needed the English translations of the Russian lyrics that were being sung, it was touchingly evident that Ms. Danchenko-Stern needed no translation whatsoever.

Providing instrumental contrast in what was primarily a vocal program, Ms. Danchenko-Stern invited Julian Milkis and Donald Shore to join her in a performance of Glinka’s Trio Pathetique (in four movements) for clarinet, bassoon, and piano. Having recently heard Milkis in a wonderful concert with the National Chamber Ensemble, I was anxious to hear him play this romantically inspired classical piece, and he did not disappoint. Even in introducing the work, it was clear that his approach to a classical piece would be one with the way he approaches jazz or any genre of music, and that is from the heart. His phrasing and his tone are truly so beautiful that they almost defy description, and the emotion and expression that come through both his body and his clarinet as he plays are such that he and his instrument seem to be one.

Donald Shore, principal bassoonist with The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Wolf Trap Opera Orchestra, and the Post Classical Ensemble, is a fine musician, and one who is well-known to DC audiences. I enjoyed his performance, and in particular his ability to match phrasing and dynamics with Milkis and Ms. Danchenko-Stern. Besides the intimacy that is so much a part of chamber music, for musicians and audiences alike, there is the truth that in these small ensembles and with the music composed for them, there is nowhere to hide and there is no instrument or part more or less important than another. Herein lies the challenge and the opportunity, and this trio turned in a wonderful performance of a work that should be heard more often.

Thanks go to Ms. Susan Carmel Lehrman and the American Councils for International Education for their support of the Russian Chamber Arts Society and to the Embassy of Austria for hosting this most wonderful concert.

The next concert of the Russian Chamber Art Society will take place on Friday, February 14, 2014, 7:30 PM at the Embassy of Austria. Titled Musical Valentine, the concert will feature soprano Irina Mozyleva, Alexander Sevastian (accordion), and Vera Danchenko-Stern (piano). For more information call (703) 354-7354. Purchase tickets online.

DC Metro Theater Arts, Jane Coyne