Monday, September 30, 2013

The Soundtrack of the Journey

The Fiddle with its master

In Mongolia, the most respected traditional instrument is the horse-head fiddle, or morin khuur.  With a sound much like the violin-cello family (they come in several sizes), they have 2 strings, tuned a perfect fourth apart, and are played with a bow and an intricate style of fingering along the fretless neck, which has a hand-carved horse’s head at the top.  It’s a beautiful sound and a treat to hear one played by an expert.  Through our associates in Mongolia, we had the honor of listening to a young, yet highly-trained fiddle player.  We were driven to a back
the master in performance
door of the main symphonic hall in Ulan Batoor, and led up about four floors using a back staircase to a small room.  A young man, impeccably-dressed, came into the room carrying a magnificent cello-sized horse-head fiddle.  He sat down and effortlessly demonstrated the range of the instrument and his ability, his fingers flying up and down the neck.  Much of the music intentionally imitated horses running, enhanced by an amazing and unusual fingering technique on the
a Fiddle Orchestra
instrument’s neck.  We were mesmerized by the playing, when suddenly we heard an eerie sound accompanying his playing.  He began singing, using the Mongolian technique of khoomei, or throat singing, where two tones are emitted at the same time.  We were lucky enough to enjoy throat
A fiddler and throat singer
singing accompanied by the horse-head fiddle a couple more times, in a ger on the steppe later that week, and again while wandering around a Buddhist temple the day before we left Mongolia.  A very unique and beautiful tradition.
In Yekaterinaburg, music quite familiar to us unexpectedly enhanced our experience at the Church of the Spilt Blood.  This is a beautiful Russian orthodox church built to honor the family of Czar 
Outside the Cathedral of Spilt Bood
Nicholas II, who were slain by the Bolsheviks in 1917 where the church is located.  Recently, the entire family was canonized, and inside this church they were portrayed as saints, with renaissance-style haloes painted around their heads.  While we wandered in the rooms displaying relics related to the family’s deaths, a haunting rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria floated into our consciousness.  Next door, there was an informal concert in progress, with vocal solos and readings performed, all out of respect for the royal family.  The Romanovs are still much loved by a sizable portion of the Russian population, and this experience accentuated that for us.
Outside the Grotto
Tsarskoye Selo, the summer palace, was the home of Russia’s royalty since Alexander I in the 1700’s.  The focal point of this large property, about a half-hour drive from St. Petersburg, is the Catherine Palace, with a 365-meter-long façade and miles of gold filigree, mirrors, marble and amber, including the Amber Room, with amber-covered walls.  We visited the Palace and then strolled around the expansive grounds.  We entered “The Grotto”, a round, stucco building facing one of the property’s lakes.  This building is known for its incredible acoustics, due to the interior’s shape and materials used, I suppose.  We entered the building and our associate, Maria, spoke briefly to a few men milling around inside the building.  I thought they were caretakers, or something.  Then they lined up, five abreast, facing us, and started singing an old Russian tune, cappella.  I was stunned – the pure, perfectly-blended sound flowed through me, my eyes welling up. The sound, the surroundings was overwhelming.  It was magic.
Gathering for the concert in Stockholm
announcing the chorale
Once more, yesterday afternoon in Stockholm, we were walking around the old part of the city when we heard a choir coming from a Stockholm Cathedral.  They were rehearsing for a concert two hours hence.  We had no plans, so we attended, and it was wonderful.  We don’t make a habit of going to choral concerts, but in this case, the choirs were exceptional, and the acoustics, once again were astounding, as  the voices, singing a range of music from contemporary to Brahms resonated off the cavernous walls of the cathedral.  It was a full house.

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