Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Classical Duo Elegance 'A Celebration of Russian Heritage in Music' Central Church Torquay Saturday 10 February 2018

Classical Duo 'Elegance' & Friends
Jazz Vocals: Maria Nicol Mezzo Soprano: Iryna Ilnytska
Violin: Yulia Northridge Balalaika: Sergei Kosov
Piano: Ekaterina Shetliffe Piano Assistant: Cerys Smith

Balalaika: Sergei Kosov
Following a sell-out performance at the Cygnet New Theatre in Exeter on Friday 9 February, the Classical Duo Elegance (pianist Ekaterina Shetliffe and violinist Yulia Northridge, with compère Lee Shetliffe) took their 'Celebration of Russian Heritage in Music' concert to the Central Church in Torquay for a further performance on Saturday 10 February.

The concert opened in style with a very exciting and unfamiliar musical sound. Ekaterina's father, Sergei Kosov, is an award-winning international exponent; of that most iconic of Russian instruments, the balalaika!

Ably accompanied by his daughter on the grand piano, Sergei played a scintillating mazurka composed by the man who revived and reinvented the balalaika repertoire in the late nineteenth century (after hearing his servant Antip playing this 'humble' instrument) - Vasily Andreev.

Mezzo Soprano: Iryna Ilnytska
The Russian theme continued with classical vocal performance by special guest, Ukrainian mezzo soprano Iryna Ilnytska.

Iryna introduced herself, and the first of her five selections for the evening, 'Lilacs' from Sergei Rachmaninov's Opus 21 'Twelve Romances'.

Rachmaninov had recently married his beloved Natalia Satina, after an enforced delay imposed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In the preceding years he had been receiving bouquets of lilacs at every performance, all from an anonymous admirer. Natalia, surely.

The words Rachmaninov chose for his fifth romance had been written by Ekaterina Beketova some two decades earlier:

"В жизни счастье одно Мне найти суждено, И то счастье в сирени живёт" (Life holds only one happiness for me - Lilacs!)

Accompanist & Raconteur:
Ekaterina Shetliffe
Our illustrious accompanist, Ekaterina Shetliffe, accompanied all the performances in the programme, but also had prepared very entertaining and witty synopses of some of the pieces to be played - which she delivered with great energy and enthusiasm.

Ekaterina and Yulia started their 'Duo Elegance' contribution with Georgy Sviridov's excruciatingly sad and heartbreaking 'Romance' from his Suite 'Метель' (The Blizzard) written for the film of the same name in 1975.

The inspiration for Sviridov's suite was a short story by Alexander Pushkin from his collection 'The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin' published in 1830.

What a tragic tale - and how eloquently Ekaterina related it. The protagonists, confused and exhausted by the storm, marry each other in error - but finally find love twenty years later.

Georgy Svidirov: 'The Blizzard'
Violin: Yulia Northridge
Switching from words to piano keys, Ekaterina continued her introduction with portentous chords on the piano which led directly into a poignant but delightful violin cadenza by Yulia Northridge.

Yulia, like Ekaterina, trained at the Dargomizsky Conservatoire in their home town of Tula in the Moscow Oblast, and also achieved the title 'The Young Talent of Russia' for her post-graduate work at the Petrosavodsk Music Academy (The State Glazunov Conservatoire).

Her dedication and expertise shine out in every note, when she plays any music - but particularly the very emotional music of the Russian canon. Even without Ekaterina's explanation, Yulia and Ekaterina's playing conveyed a sense of nostalgia and yearning that was overpowering.

A spectacular foretaste of the evening's wonders to come.

Virtuoso Balalaika: Sergei Kosov
The theme of sadness and regret was skilfully and sensitively picked up by Sergei, who continued the recital with a traditional Russian folk song for balalaika and piano, 'винят меня' meaning literally 'Blame Me', but with the English title 'It's all my Fault'.

The balalaika has only three strings. The lower two are identical Es and the upper an A. From this apparently limited resource Sergei was able to draw forth an unbelievably complex variety of sounds and moods. The performance was also utterly entrancing to watch. Sergei's fingers move with uncanny dexterity over the diminutive frets - much closer and narrower than those of a guitar - finding a thousand perfect notes with absolute precision.

In addition to the emotional intensity of the music, it was also wonderful to see and hear the very special musical understanding and cooperation between father and daughter, as Sergei and Ekaterina complemented each other's musical excellence so naturally.

A stylish pianist:
Ekaterina Shetliffe
For the concert Sergei had traded his beautiful multicoloured 'kosovorotka' (the impressive traditional Russian skew-collared shirt) for a more conventional western European waistcoat and bow tie. Meanwhile Ekaterina was radiant in red, and had a very special hairstyle for the evening - courtesy of her personal hairdresser (your name here!).

Iryna complemented Ekaterina's sophisticated style with her own silver lamé evening gown with black fur tippet. They also performed perfectly together musically in Iryna's second vocal piece, 'Средь шумного бала' (Amid the Din of the Ball), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's fabulous exploration of love and deep emotion in the form of a traditional waltz.

Ekaterina and Iryna are not regularly collaborators, but their teamwork is startlingly impressive. Tchaikovsky's original emotional aim was brilliantly brought to fruition in the magnificent performance by these two talented musicians.

Jazz Vocals: Maria Nicol
Sergei and Ekaterina amazed everyone again with their loving treatment of traditional Russian folk music, by performing 'Вниз по Волге-реке' (A Trip Down the Volga River), and the 'Duo Elegance' (Yulia and Ekaterina) played a maginifence interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Chant sans Paroles (Song without Words) - 'Mélodie', from 'Воспоминание о дорогом месте' (Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher - Memories of a Lovely Place), before our special guest for the evening (not performing at Exeter, or Taunton) took the stage.

Soprano Maria Nicol originates much further East than the other performers. She comes from Yekaterineburg, adminstrative centre of the Sverdlovsk Oblast. Like Sergei, Maria learned her craft at the Mikhail Gnesin State Musical College in Moscow.

Her speciality is Russian traditional songs with a jazz theme. Her first choice was perfect, 'Майский вальс' (May Waltz). A touching story of a Soviet soldier playing his balalaika in Vienna's central square to celebrate victory on the Eastern Front - with live balalaika provided by Sergei Victorovich!

Sergei Kosov
Maria's introduction (in an intriguing eastern accent), and magical performance, were a delightful addition to the programme. Combined with Sergei's sensational playing, the effect was an absolute joy.

How lucky the people of Torquay were to have two such talented Russian performers under one roof - and working together so splendidly - not forgetting that most important third component, the wonderful piano accompaniment of Ekaterina Shetliffe.

Lee then introduced something very unexpected. A piece demonstrating the potential for the balalaika to reproduce the sound of unrelated instruments.

For this performance, Sergei donned an American fisherman's bucket hat, reminiscent of John Voight and Ned Beatty's titfers in the performance of Arthur Smith's 'Feudin' Banjos' by Billy Redden and Ronny Cox in John Boorman's 1972 classic movie 'Deliverance'.

Imitating Banjo: Sergei Kosov
(In reality it was Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell who played the backing track, with Mike Addis on set reaching in to provide hand movements for Billy, who is not actually a musician.)

Sergei Victorovich proceeded to recreate the exquisite sound of a southern US banjo, in Sergei Kachalin's 'Старое банджо' (Old Banjo) accompanied again by his daughter Ekaterina.

Anyone (appropriately) impressed by Weissberg and Mandel in the screen soundtrack, would be infinitely more impressed by  Sergei's performance on Saturday night. What sounds he produced from that deceptively simple instrument!

Segei not only mimicked the four (or five) strings of the traditional banjo on his three stringed instrument, but also went well beyond the already spectacular repertoire of most professional banjo players.

The Gnesin clearly takes the balalaika very seriously, and graduates like Sergei Victorovich are more than sufficiently prepared for any music that comes their way - even from the opposite side of the Atlantic!

During the interval there was a chance to see traditional Russian costumes, both on mannequins and modeled by Ekaterina's own children. Also there was a deliciously salty traditional Russian bread on offer in the bar (already more than half consumed by the time the photograph opposite was taken!)

Plus many other delicious Russian treats were provided (and very soon demolished!), and mementos of Russia - in particular from Ekaterina & Yulia's home town of Tula.

The musicians, and their master of ceremonies for evening, Lee Shetliffe, were on hand to discuss the music and the cultural significance of the treats and trinkets.

A convivial time was had by all, including many Russian nationals who were enjoying a fabulous panoply of musical entertainment from the motherland.

A lovely interlude for Russian music aficionados to exchange notes before the evening's entertainment recommenced.

After the break Ekaterina's daughter, in a charming traditional Russian costume, had a special prize for the winner of the evening's raffle, a beautiful Russian matryoshka doll.

Lee Shetliffe was on hand to interview the lucky winner - who turned out to be visitor from Moscow. Definitely a case of coals to Newcastle, but a lovely moment anyway.

No one was left out however. There were plenty more matryoshki on sale back-stage.

The Snow Maiden
Iryna Ilnytska
Sergei and Ekaterina opened the second half with a very appropriate Russian folk song for a cold winter evening, arranged by Alexander Shalov, 'валенки' (Felt Boots). Sergei's shivering tremolo was also infused with warmth - evoking the delicious coziness of being properly dressed for a frosty day in Moscow.

Iryna's next song was by a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, but belonging to a different school of music - The Mighty Handful. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov incorporated the seasonal moods into his music, especially in his opera 'Снегурочка' (The Snow Maiden), also known as 'Весенняя сказка' (A Spring Fairy Tale).

The original story by Alexander Ostrovsky had been set to music by Tchaikovsky eight years earlier, but Rimsky-Korsakov created a very different and lasting masterpiece.

Iryna, as Ljel, sang the famous third song, "Снегурочка–Весенняя сказка Ты греми, гром, а я дождь разолью" (A cloud said to the thunderstorm, "You rumble, and I shall shed the rain.") The imagery is clear, and the mood perfectly created by Iryna's deep emotive voice - with accompaniment by Ekaterina on the piano and Sergei's balalaika. A Russian classic.

Yulia Northridge
introduces the Russian Dance from Swan Lake
Not to be outdone by the other performers, Yulia stepped forward to give her own introduction to her pièce de résistance for the evening, the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake', a virtuoso cadenza written specifically for violin.

Sergei began to set up her music stand as she spoke and, determined to show her mastery of English she explained to him that this time, for the first time, she would play from memory. Sadly, Sergei does not speak English so her words fell on deaf ears.

Russian Dance: Yulia Northridge
Fortunately Ekaterina was on hand to sort out the confusion, and Yulia introduced the music in Russian as well as English, for the benefit of the Russian speakers in the audience.

The performance itself was spectacular. With total focus Yulia explored the entire range of her instrument. Ekaterina added the barest accompaniment to this tour de force, as Yulia demonstrated her impressive skill and emotional connection with the music.

Despite the difficulty, playing from memory is always an especially enjoyable treat for the audience, as there is no barrier of notes on a manuscript. The player can concentrate on communicating through their instrument.

The story Yulia related was exhilarating and intoxicating. A uniquely memorable journey of excitement and beauty.

"White Blizzard": Maria Nicol
Balalaika: Sergei Kosov  Piano Ekaterina Shetliffe
As the audience assimilated the amazing performance they had just experienced, Sergei returned and joined Ekaterina to accompany Maria in another traditional Russian folk song, continuing the wintery theme. Alexander Varlamov's 'Вдоль по улице метелица метёт' (A blizzard sweeps along the street) is, as Maria explained, "A song about a random Russian beauty."

Glimpsed in the snowstorm, the passing beauty so intrigued the poet Dmitry Glebov that he wrote these words of yearning, "Ты постой, постой, красавица моя, Дозволь наглядеться, радость, на тебя!" (Stop! Wait for just a moment, and let me enjoy the sight of you!)

Maria returned to these words over and over, each time with an ever greater sense of urgency and desperation.

It was such a treat to hear and see the traditional Russian song sung as it was intended - and by a master of the craft.

Maria's performance added something very special to an already special evening.

Alexander Tsygankov: 'Introduction & Csárdás'
Violin: Yulia Northridge  Balalaika: Sergei Kosov
To allow for a special encore the programme order was then changed, and Yulia and Sergei joined Ekaterina for an explosive rendition of Alexander Tsygankov's 'Introduction & Csárdás'.

This recent composition builds on the Hungarian dance theme made popular by Johannes Brahms. Tsygankov scored the music for orchestra and three balalaika players (including himself).

Amazingly, just three players in total were able to recreate this masterpiece in all its original glory.

Maria astounded the audience again with Mikael Tariverdiev's 'Песня о далёкой Родине' (Song of the Motherland), and Iryna had one last intensely moving opera aria, 'Господ тэбя осудит' (God will judge you) from Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Tzar's Bride', the distressing story of Ljubasha's self-destructive attempt to revenge unrequited love.

Vittorio Monti: 'Csárdás'
Violin: Yulia Northridge  Piano Ekaterina Shetliffe
Sergei completed the official programme with the Russian classic 'калинка' (My little snowball berry) by Ivan Larionov. Frenzied appeals to 'Kalinka' are interspersed with languid requests to be allowed to rest under the pines. A spellbinding contrast.

Finally, by popular request, Yulia played the piece for which she is rightly famous, 'Csárdás' by Vittorio Monti. Not remotely Russian, but no one cared. Monti's many variations on the Hungarian dance are perfect for the violin, and Yulia has mastered them all. Not only that, at very short notice, so has Sergei. His balalaika solos were equally unique and impressive.

Masters of the Csárdás
Yulia Northridge, Sergei Kosov, Ekaterina Shetliffe
Compère: Lee Shetliffe  Piano Assistant: Cerys Smith

Ekaterina Shetliffe
& award-winning balalaikist
Sergei Kosov
The 'Celebration of Russian Heritage in Music' by the Classical Duo Elegance and their fellow musicians was a resounding success. The music was 'sans pareil', and the choice of programme a delight from start to finish.

It is not often that Yulia is able to come to Devon to entertain us and even rarer for Maria and Sergei to be able to join us. To have all these musicians together, not to mention Iryna, was a red-letter day indeed. We must all be deeply grateful to Ekaterina for organising such a special evening and making it such a success.

PS Only days later Sergei was in London with Ekaterina for an international music competition. He took first place in the instrumental section, and also won the Maslennitsa Award for the best performance of a folk song. Who could possibly be surprised at that? Sergei's mastery of Russia's traditional instrument confirmed!

Here's hoping Ekaterina can persuade Sergei to return and amaze us all with his musicianship again in the very near future.

Appreciation from the next generation
A carnation for each performer:
Jazz Vocalist: Maria Nicol  Mezzo Soprano: Iryna Ilnytska
Violin: Yulia Northridge  Balalaika: Sergei Kosov
Piano: Ekaterina Shetliffe  Piano Assistant: Cerys Smith

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