Basiani blends Georgian singing styles with power and grace
Ensemble Basiani gave the first concert in their latest US tour Thursday night at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Ann Arbor, as part of the University Musical Society’s season. This 12-voice male choral ensemble from Tbilisi is dedicated to the ancient and multi-faceted polyphonic singing tradition of the Republic of Georgia. Folk songs from various regions of Georgia made up most of the program, and there was a beautiful and varied set of church music from the Georgian Orthodox liturgical tradition as well.
Basiani’s program captured the essence of the various styles in Georgian folk music in splendid fashion, with the solo voices in particular displaying mastery of these specialized vocal styles. The intensely dissonant, independent polyphony of the western region of Guria, including the intricate solo krimanchuli yodeling technique, was represented by Guruli Perkhuli and Naduri. Chakrulo and Mravalzhamier featured highly ornamented solo duets over a drone bass in the lyrical style of Kakheti in eastern Georgia. Other regional styles included powerful, rustic singing from the mountain region of Svaneti (Didebata) to the sweetly crooned lyricism of Kali gadmogda mtazeda, sung with accompaniment of the panduri, a sort of Georgian ukulele.
Most concert programs by Georgian folk ensembles include at most one piece of liturgical sacred music. Basiani, however, is under the patronage of Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia, and its members sing in the cathedral choir in Tbilisi. Their set of six liturgical pieces, all in three parts, demonstrated their mastery of the varied sacred musical traditions. Georgia has been a Christian country since the 4th century, and since independence has been hard at work reclaiming this ancient music and using it in services. This was best exemplified by two settings of Shen khar venakhi (Thou art the True Vine), a hymn to the Virgin Mary with the text, based on John’s Gospel “I am the vine, you are the branches,” a favorite in this wine-growing country. The smooth, conventionally harmonized version from east Georgia was followed by a trio singing the same text in the contrasting west Georgian liturgical mode, including harmony following non-tempered tuning (singing notes between the notes on the piano).
The spirit, discipline, control and power of tone from Basiani is among the best Georgia has to offer, and the large crowd responded with multiple standing ovations. Their tour continues throughout the United States through October 27. Schedules at www.basiani.ge/en
Clayton Parr is director of Choral Activities at Albion College and the executive secretary of Intercollegiate Male Choruses.