A year ago this month, an all-Gershwin concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought down the house at Meyerhoff Hall thanks in large measure to contributions by the Morgan State University Choir in excerpts from Porgy and Bess. On the podium was the BSO's music director Yuri Temirkanov, who enjoyed the experience of working with the choristers so much that he invited them to repeat the program in Russia, this time performing with his other orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, during an arts festival he founded.
Thanks to support from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the City of Baltimore, spearheaded by the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Morgan State Choir is able to accept Temirkanov's invitation. The ensemble, which sang at Rawlings' funeral in Baltimore last week, will be featured prominently in the Fifth International Arts Square Winter Festival in St Petersburg. In addition to singing the Porgy and Bess selections on Jan. 6 in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic's Grand Hall, the choir will close the festival there the next night with a concert on its own.
"This trip is wildly anticipated," says Nathan Carter, director of the Morgan State Choir. "The hardest part has been choosing the 80 singers out of 140 students who will go on the tour."
Carter expects the artistic results in Russia to be as memorable as they were when the choir collaborated with Temirkanov in Baltimore. "We've done Porgy and Bess so many times," Carter says, "but Temirkanov's was so very special last year. He was very warm and inspiring, with a more lyrical approach in this music than some other conductors. He really appealed to my choir and had a way of getting a good wedding of voices with instruments. We really enjoyed doing it."
The feeling is mutual. "It was such a pleasure to work with Dr. Carter and this wonderful chorus last year," Temirkanov says. "This is one of the best ensembles I've ever worked with in the United States, and I can think of no finer chorus to sing this particular repertoire. They will be a great gift not only to the St. Petersburg audience, but to the people throughout Russia who will hear their performance on television and radio."
International travel is a regular part of the Morgan State Choir's activities; the group sang in Czechoslovakia and France earlier this year, for example. "It rarely happens that we go 12 months without being out of the country," Carter says. But the festival appearance will mark the choir's debut in Russia, an expensive destination. Although concert fees paid by presenting organizations often cover the choir's travel costs, the St. Petersburg festival has a limited budget for guest artists. To make this trip possible, $100,000 had to be raised at home.
"Delegate Rawlings was a wonderful spokesperson for us," Carter says. "He helped to get assistance from the city and the state. They have been very kind to us. They appreciate what we do here, and the positive impact we can have for the city and state when we tour."
It has never been easy for arts groups to get government grants, and things will only get more difficult in the future. "If this were happening in the 2005 budget, it would be very hard to do," says Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, which contributed $80,000 toward the choir's expenses. "If they were to call this the Peter Rawlings Memorial Tour, that would probably be fitting. He did a lot of work to make it happen."
Despite the state's fiscal challenges, the tour grant had nearly unanimous support within the administration, Melissaratos says. "From my point of view, I don't look at the nickels and dimes, but at the quality of life. The arts are invaluable in selling Maryland. And this tour will help spread the good news about Maryland. It's a way of letting the world know how good we are."
Similar sentiments have been expressed at City Hall in Baltimore; the city contributed $20,000 for the choir's Russian trip. "It's all about supporting one of our more esteemed African-American institutions," says deputy mayor Jeanne Hitchcock. "The choir has always been a wonderful goodwill ambassador for Maryland and Baltimore. The Board of Estimates was unanimous in approving the grant."
The participation of the Morgan State Choir in the St. Petersburg festival reinforces the overall theme Temirkanov has given to the event, "Russia - America: Musical Bonds." Political bonds may not be particularly strong since the Iraq war. "But if you take a bigger view, these disagreements are just fuss," the conductor says. "After Sept. 11, the whole world was divided into just two halves - the civilized world and those with a Middle Ages fundamentalism. Both Russia and America belong to the civilized half; our countries are very close now."
Another impetus behind the Russian/American theme can be traced back to the Vivat! St. Petersburg Festival that involved most of the arts organizations in Baltimore last winter. "I was very touched by the way the community here, and all across the country, celebrated the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg," Temirkanov says. "If Americans can celebrate that, I thought the festival could celebrate America."
Although American music is hardly unknown or unappreciated in Russia, the opportunity to hear it performed there by an organization like the Morgan State Choir is rare. "This will be very, very interesting for the public," Temirkanov says.
For the finale, Carter says the choir's program, performed a cappella and with piano, will contain "a little this, a little that. We will offer a sampling of various styles, with some from the African-American heritage - spirituals and gospel. I hope to do some Russian repertoire, too, if we can put it together in time, maybe something from Rachmaninoff's Vespers."
The St. Petersburg festival will include appearances by other American artists - violinists Sarah Chang and Stefan Jackiw and former BSO resident conductor Daniel Hege. Besides Gershwin, audiences will get a sampling of music by Samuel Barber, Lou Harrison and Leonard Bernstein. Russian and European repertoire and artists will be represented as well. The 11-day festival opens Dec. 28 with Temirkanov conducting Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, subtitled "From the New World."