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Scent of Culture III
Russian Audiences Praise the Vocal Artistry of Korea’s Choir Group

‘I Maestri’ (All-male Choir) Performs in Russian Far East
Kim Ho-jeong
Cultural Correspondent, The JoongAng Ilbo
Russia is home of the “Don Cossack Choir,” a legendary group among male choirs. Nonetheless, the local audiences of the Russian Far East warmly embraced the vibrant performances of ‘I Maestri,’ an all-male choir from Korea.

When I arrived in Vladivostok, a local Korean resident of this city of the Russian Far East told me: “The weather from Korea eventually reaches here,” while pointing toward the approaching rain clouds, which had showered the Korean Peninsula a few days earlier.

All-new Experience
A day earlier, the 60 members of I Maestri had staged their initial performance in the port city of Nakhodka, which was practically immersed in water during the group’s visit. The physical condition of the DCM Hall venue was apparently less than ideal, with the lighting system being unreliable due to power disruptions, along with having to deal with basic modes of transportation.
The situation in Vladivostok was challenging as well. The acoustics of the Philharmonia Hall were found to be rather lacking. Wood panels were installed along the rear of the stage, in an effort to project the sound outward; however, the resonance of the singers did not seem to reach every corner of the venue. In addition, the stage area was limited, forcing the group to adopt a tight shoulder-to-shoulder arrangement. Still, by curtain time, local residents filled more than 90 percent of the hall’s 700 seats, even though the admission tickets were priced at 500 rubles (equal to about 15,000 won). The group seemed to be rather apprehensive, in large part because of an unfamiliarity between the performers and the audience. The presentation got underway with Verdi’s Rigoletto, arranged by Liszt, which opened with a piano solo. The tragic but heroic sentiment of the musical piece gradually permeated and eventually filled the entire hall. Indeed, thanks to the group’s professional experience and stage presence, it easily overcame the imperfect circumstances and presented a wonderful performance.

Graceful Harmony
Founded in 2006, I Maestri is a choir group that dreams of being a “corps of singers in their prime.” The collective voices of the all male singers, in their 30s and 40s, contribute to a kind of vocal orchestra. Last year, the choir staged four regular concerts, under a title of “An Orchestra of the Sounds of a Waterfall,” and also performed at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan, in July. Noriko Kono, a critic of the Japanese music magazine “Friends of Music,” observed: “They are a ‘voice orchestra’ of harmonious sound, rather than a mere choir.” The audience perked up when the choir sang Nessun Dorma, from the Puccini opera “Turandot.” Each singer sang as loudly as possible, caring about only producing a powerful resonance, leading up to everyone shouting “Vincero,” at the climax. This work, ideally suited for male singers, places baritones in the spotlight, rather than the tenor and bass sections. Moreover, along with a maximum volume, the singers must all blend their individual voices into a harmonious group sound, for an optimal effect.
Of course, beyond the talent of each singer, the 60-member group has attained its harmony through constant practice and years of experience. In fact, the choir experience of each member was no less than 10 years, and as much as 30 years in several cases. The group’s dedicated efforts are also reflected in its receipt of some 60 or so awards and citations at international events.
The members of the choir studied in about ten different cities, around the world, and have performed in hundreds of concerts and operas. These numbers indicate the growing presence of Korean vocalists on the international stage. At Vladivostok, the group’s professionalism was clearly evident in the presentation of a diverse program that included the Korean songs “Arirang” and “Boat Song,” which introduced the audience to the melodic sentiments of Korea’s traditional music.

Warm Embrace
Following the regular program, the appreciative audience gave the Korean choir a standing ovation that continued until the group had staged four encore works. Finally, someone appeared on stage with a large bouquet and handed out flowers to several members, which provided a touching moment for everyone in attendance. In addition, the audience showed its enthusiasm by clapping rhythmically throughout most of the performance, which served to energize the entire choir.
Nakhodka and Vladivostok are hardly the centers of music in Russia. Nevertheless, Russia is home of the Don Cossack Choir, a legendary group among male choirs. After Russian soldiers had been captured by Turkey troops during World War I, they organized a choir group to take their minds off the difficult circumstances of POW detention. With their powerful and passionate singing, they made Russian folk songs widely known to peoples throughout Europe and around the world. I Maestri has yet to prove itself in the “heart” of Russia’s rich music culture. However, based on the success of its performances in the Russian Far East, the group has taken a positive step forward in this regard. Meanwhile, I Maestri seeks to establish itself as special cultural product of Korea by continuously adding to its repertoire, which already includes arias from well-known operas and Gregorian chants. The choir is slated to stage another performance in Japan in 2010. In due time, a return to the land of the Don Cossack Choir seems inevitable.

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