The messenger logo

And they said it was just a concert

By Rumwold Leigh
Friday, February 11
The Basiani, Maspindzeli and Tabuni choirs, St. Johnís Smith Square, London, 8th February

Saint Johnís Smith Square, the baroque former church which has long been one of the foremost concert venues in London, often plays host to choirs from different parts of the world. The added extra of this concert was the presence of Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia, visiting the country to consecrate a new Georgian Orthodox Church. He came with a bevy of clergy and Metropolitan Antony of Kerch, the Russian bishop in London, was amongst the other Orthodox dignitaries there. It was also the first visit of Basiani, the Georgian Patriarchateís folk choir, to London. On a very superficial level therefore this concert stood out among the many which have been held there in recent times.

What about the music? Ask anyone who was there in ten years time. They will remember it as clearly as today, competing against each other to recall the songs they heard and sing them if they can. In his opening speech the Georgian Ambassador to the UK stated that civilization began when polyphonic singing was invented, implying that Georgians were the first civilised people on earth. No matter how many times you hear Georgian boasts, it is difficult to argue with that one on the evidence of this concert.

The Basiani choir were all men, dressed in black Georgian chokhas, impressive enough in themselves. They manifested that peculiar Georgian physical combination of matter of fact burliness and dignified bearing, as if they were bouncers at poshest nightclub on earth. They paraded onto the stage without fuss and began with the ethereal harmonies of the cherubic hymn, familiar from all Georgian churches. Looking around the hall, you could immediately identify who knew this and who didnít Ė the first burst into tears, the second had their jaws nailed to the floor. You just donít get this anywhere else. The hymn was followed by applause which was not so much polite as scared. What does a mere mortal do in the presence of this? No matter how many concerts you review, you will never see such an audience reaction to a piece.

The Maspindzeli and Tabuni choirs are mostly English people who just happen to love Georgian singing. Consequently, although they sang well and the Georgians present had the highest praise for them, there was a slight element of playing at it. They also had some difficulty with the acoustics of the hall, as did the Basiani, but this highlighted that folk songs belong with the people, in their everyday lives, not in concert halls. What they did convey, as did the Basiani later on, was a folk music free of the political associations it was given in Soviet times, which still often clings to the songs of Russia and Bulgaria, for example. These are songs of people who live, not make political statements about ďthe peopleĒ. Presentationally the concert was spot on, different formats following each other in quick succession, first a mixed choir, then women dancing and singing, then women singing to instrumental accompaniment, then the Basiani and the two local choirs together, clapping each other as they sang an animated conversation. The Georgian sitting next to this reviewer, who has heard it all before, kept saying ďfantasticĒ. Knowing Georgian humour, maybe by including so many songs from Guria the choirs were trying to imply that all Georgians are mad, but if they are, who needs sanity?

Instead of an interval the conductor of the Basiani gave a speech in which he thanked everyone for inviting them, seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone was desperate for them not to leave. He then introduced two hymns by Patriarch Ilia himself, the first being the standard ďHoly GodĒ you hear every Sunday. The conductor explained that these were what Georgian culture was about, and again they were something you would automatically pick as Georgian if you didnít know the specific piece or something outside your experience if you had no knowledge of Georgia. These were followed by warbling, full-throated conversational part songs by the Basiani, many familiar to non-Georgians who have visited the country because people sing them everywhere. There was no let up: a tenor soloist sang with accompaniment of both choir and Georgian guitar, parts interweaving with an inevitability only folk music can have, either coming from the soul or nor at all, whether complex or simple.

When this reviewer was in Georgia he amused himself by improvising Georgian sounding songs with gobbledegook words. If Georgians heard him in the street they would join in, following these melodies they didnít know, singing parts. They knew the songs were all nonsense, but didnít care Ė they were Georgian, so it was important simply to sound like one. Ultimately that remains what Georgian music is about, and the concert conveyed this to what should have been a far broader audience.

In Georgia itself you canít fully enter into this music because the everyday life youíre caught up in is the opposite of the majesty it conveys. In England you canít do so either because the music is out of context. All you want to do is go back there are live the life these songs express, and help everyone else do the same, removing all the obstacles to that. You become a proper human being again. Or maybe we should all just go and kill ourselves, not deserving to be on the same planet as this. At least we could all take a free CD home and cry, and thatís what everyone did.