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Morgan choir's next movement - Russia

Last week, singer Joy Dobson was battling post-holiday shoppers in Hecht's to find a coat warm enough for her next gig: Porgy and Bess in St. Petersburg.

Like other members of the Morgan State University Choir, Dobson knew the typical Russian winter weather forecast - snow, snow and more snow, with temperatures in the teens if you were lucky. Just in case she wasn't, the Annapolis native also intended to track down a pair of insulated boots.

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After seven years singing alto with the choir, Dobson has become accustomed to performing on the world's most famous stages. Her first big concert with Morgan was the Marian Anderson tribute in Carnegie Hall in 1997, conducted by the legendary Robert Shaw.

Since then, she has followed Morgan's own legendary director, Nathan Carter, "all over the place."

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Last January, for instance, she traveled to Paris to perform Wynton Marsalis' "All Rise" with the Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpet player, conductor Kurt Masur, the Orchestra National de France and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. She also speaks fondly of tours to the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda, as well as performing and recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

And tomorrow night, she'll stand in the historic Grand Hall of the Shostakovich Philharmonia as part of an all-Gershwin program conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. The 80-voice Morgan choir will fill the second half of the concert with selections from Porgy and Bess. The goal, said Carter, is for their performance to please the St. Petersburg audience as much as it captivated its maestro.

After conducting the choir in a similiar Gershwin concert in Baltimore in 2002, Temirkanov invited Morgan to perform in the Russian music festival he created. This year's International Winter Festival Arts Square celebrates the artistic bonds between Russia and America in music - an apt choice by the man who holds joint appointments with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

"It is extremely gratifying of Temirkanov to think enough of us to want to show us off in his own home," said Carter. "We have a responsibility to make the best music we can and hopefully share with his audience what he felt when he conducted us in Baltimore."

The choir left for Russia on Saturday - a group from the choir was actually scheduled to perform that morning at a Morgan State alumni association event - and will return Friday. (The trip was paid for with $100,000 from the state and city governments.) In addition to the performance of Porgy and Bess, the choir will demonstrate its musical diversity with a two-hour recital Wednesday that includes spirituals, gospel music and movements from Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil," a work that the choir will sing in Russian.

Performing at least one work in the language of the choir's host country has become a Morgan hallmark.

"I think a lot about Kennedy's 'Ich Bein ein Berliner' speech," Carter said. "It's [speaking in the native language] a real entree. It's hard to describe how much that does."

Another performance booster is the choir's spontaneity. Reflecting the African-American tradition of improvisation, Morgan singers often don't know who will sing a particular solo until right before a concert, or sometimes, during it. Factoring in the available personnel, trusting his artistic instinct, Carter often taps featured performers on the spot, the way a football coach sends certain players onto the field.

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The element of surprise makes for a great show.

"Varying solos is part of the genius of keeping the group so fresh and spontaneous," said pianist Eric Conway, associate conductor of the choir and accompanist for the recital. "We could just go out and do the same boiler-plate program over and over and no one would be the wiser.

"But this way, internally, you know there's something exciting going on. ... The audience can tell that something spontaneous is happening on stage and they're mystified. ... It's part of the allure of the choir."

After 32 years under Carter, the choir has made an indelible mark on American culture with its numerous recordings, even earning a place in music scholar Eileen Southern's history, The Music of Black Americans.

The Winter Festival concerts mark the choir's first performance in St. Petersburg, although not its first booking. In 1975, on a recording tour that included Helsinki and London, Morgan singers stopped briefly in what was then Leningrad after their concert there was unexpectedly canceled.

This time, the singers have at least one day free for sightseeing. But they'll spend most of their time doing what they usually do on the road: Eating, sleeping, rehearsing, resting their voices and rehydrating.

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"Even though we're students, you get a real strong feeling of the professional world and of what it takes to succeed," said tenor Jeremy Winston, who graduated last May.

Joy Dobson is enough of a veteran to recognize the Russian trip as another exciting, and probably jet-lagged, week.

"I've learned to get on the bus, or get on the plane, and just go," she said. "Sometimes some of my friends and family will be: 'Where are you going? Where are you singing exactly?' And I'll be, 'I don't know.' We just get on the bus. It's time for another trip."

As a member of the Morgan Singers, the choir's prestigious vocal group, the graduating senior rehearses at least an hour every day.

"The choir stays busy year-round, nonstop," she said. "I tease some of the sportsmen at Morgan. I'll say, 'You get a season off, we don't.' We may have a couple of weeks here or there, but it's very rare."

Before she left, Dobson did not know if she would be asked to perform a solo in Russia. Neither did tenor TaVonne Hasty, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, who said he'd prepared for the counter-tenor part in one of the Rachmaninoff movements.

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"Singing counter-tenor is something I'm exploring this year," he said. "To be in front of a new crowd singing in a new area of my voice is kind of an exciting - and a nervous - thing for me, to say the least!"


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