November 27, 2019

Princeton University Glee Club Teams Up With Vocal Ensemble from Country of Georgia

By Nancy Plum

Ideally, the mission of any university includes expanding the horizons of its students, and the members of the Princeton University Glee Club have been achieving that goal well in recent years. Under the leadership of Gabriel Crouch, the Glee Club has collaborated with ensembles from far corners of the world, including South Africa and the former Eastern European countries.

Last week, the 90-member Glee Club hosted a visit from the all-male Ensemble Basiani, touring the United States from the former Soviet region of Georgia, introducing audiences to the rich polyphonic tradition of this area. In a Princeton University Concerts program last Monday night, the 12-member Ensemble Basiani, led by director Zurab Tskrialashvili, entertained the audience at the Princeton University Chapel with a wide variety of a cappella sacred and secular choral works from seven centuries of musical history.

The country of Georgia, nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, and at the junction of Asia, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, has a history dating back as far as the 12th century B.C. The diversity of countries and cultures surrounding the region can be heard in Georgian vocal music, which also dates back centuries. Ensemble Basiani, founded in 2000 in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi, has made a mission of reviving the traditional songs and sacred hymns of Georgian musical life.  For almost 20 years, the 12-member chorus has brought to audiences worldwide the unique polyphonic choral style which evolved in Georgia, secluded from the more familiar Western European composers and music.

The sacred hymns Ensemble Basiani performed last Monday night sounded closely related to the richly harmonic choral works composed for the vast cathedrals of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The works were varied in text and liturgical purpose, but maintained a similar vocal character among themselves. Ensemble Basiani opened the program with a double-chorus Christmas carol, sung with a raw, Arabic-like choral tone which might sound vocally rough compared to the more blended choral palettes of Western choruses. The sound carried well from the ensemble’s position in front of the Chancel at the Chapel, with chords sometimes taking time in this vocal style to settle in the space.

A number of the pieces ended with the singers arriving at a unison note or open fifth interval, following long streams of choral sound over a bass drone. The Ensemble incorporated traditional Georgian “yodeling” into several pieces over a foundation of low tenors and basses. Most impressive was a trio of singers performing an improvisatory western Georgian banquet song comprised of just one line of text — “Peace to us and victory!” The three singers seemed to be lost in their own musical conversations, with impeccable tuning among the voices. A common genre of piece performed was the “work song,” often led by a tenor in a “call and response” style, with a sharp vocal edge to match the text — in one case a tribute to the worker’s iron sickle.

Ensemble Basiani performed two pieces with the University Glee Club, led by Crouch. In a setting of the text “Thou art the mystical paradise” from the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, and a setting of a traditional Georgian folk song, the full-throated sound of Ensemble Basiani might have seemed tempting for college-age voices to emulate, but could be vocally stressful in voices so young. The tenors and basses of the Glee Club well handled the singing demands in both pieces, with the overall effect softened by the addition of women’s voices. The sopranos in particular added a sparkly sound which rose well in the Chapel.

Any collaboration between choruses results in multiple benefits, including fellowship, learning diverse musical styles, and collecting new repertoire. Both Ensemble Basiani and the Princeton University Glee Club can now claim new friends on both sides of the world, and their collaboration enabled a Princeton audience to hear a taste of a well-hidden part of the musical world.