Text Vladimir Kozlov
Mikhail Turetsky heads a very popular and equally unconventional group on the Russian musical scene. His Khor Turetskogo [Turetsky’s Choir] mixes classical and spiritual songs with popular hits and seems to have found a good balance between commercial viability and artistic integrity.
Turetsky’s journey into the world of music began rather early. “If a child has a musical ear, a voice, and a desire, then involvement in the world of music comes naturally…At 18 months old, I was singing to popular tunes on TV,” he recalls.
Still, family also played its role, as it was his mother who sent him to study music. “Children don’t make decisions about what to do, but they send their parents signals that they are gifted and inclined toward something,” Turetsky explains, adding that his parents “gave him the right direction.”
Another person who at some point helped Turetsky to choose the right musical career was his father’s cousin, well-known conductor Rudolf Barshai. “After listening to my voice, he said that I should attend the Sveshnikov choir school rather than take flute classes,” the artist remembers.
Turetsky received the best possible musical education available in Soviet times: He graduated from the Gnesin Institute with honors and attended graduate school in symphonic conducting. This education later helped Turetsky to become the leader and producer of his own group, he says. However, he had to try different things before embarking on his life’s main project.
“I worked at a music theater, I did church music, I headed up restaurant bands,” he says. “From all these diverse experiences, it became clear to me that I could be the leader of a group. But it would be insincere to say that I knew what I wanted to do from the very beginning. True, if you get trained as a conductor, you are supposed to direct a music project, but you can’t know for sure.”
In its formative stages, Turetsky’s Choir was very different from what it is now. It began as a choir at the Moscow Choral Synagogue in the late 1980s and reflected Turetsky’s interest in Judaic spiritual music. “Very few people were interested in that kind of music at the time, and no one at all in the post-Soviet countries,” Turetsky says. “So when I got an opportunity, I did some research in libraries in New York and Jeruslaem and discovered this profound, diverse, and very stylish kind of music that was accessible at a basic human level.”
Originally, Turetsky’s group saw its mission as reviving Judaic religious music, but, according to the group’s head, after a few years the collective’s ambitions became bigger than that rather narrow area. “We understood that we had to have a broader scope and began to include secular material in our programs,” Turetsky says.
The career of Turetsky’s Choir has not always been smooth. Having reached its peak as a classical male choir that mixed religious and secular material by the mid-1990s, the group remained non-commercial and was unable to sustain itself financially in Russia. This prompted its members to accept a twoyear contract in the United States.
That move forced the group to expand its repertory, paving the way to their future success. “In America, we sort of turned into a pop group,” Turetsky says. “We learned to sing into a microphone, we attended all Broadway and Las Vegas shows, we learned to sing in English, in Italian, in French.”
Over the last 10 years, Turetsky’s Choir has performed various kinds of music from different parts of the world and from different time periods. “Today, our repertoire contains music from the last four centuries – from Handel to Soviet pop hits, chanson, and the best examples of contemporary pop culture,” says the choir’s head. “The 10 of us could sing anything that has ever been written.”
This format has turned out to be immensely successful, bringing the group opportunities to perform all over the world. However, according to Turetsky, in order to be received well, the group has to select its program carefully for any individual audience. “We always adjust our program for particular audiences,” he says. “We understand that if we’re going to perform at a jazz festival in Austria, we need to think about the audience’s mentality. We wouldn’t, for instance, sing [the Soviet hit] “Siny Tuman [Blue Fog]” by Vyacheslav Dobrynin there. The audience wouldn’t understand that, but it would, for instance, understand an a cappella version of “Ochi Chorniye [Black Eyes].”
“We try to predict the audience’s preferences and, thanks to our large repertoire, we can always select the right material. In Europe, for instance, audiences are much more appreciative of musical craft smanship than people here in Russia. In America, audiences like compilations and mixes, Italian and French songs as well as songs form Broadway musicals, Jewish and Russian songs. So, we sing more of that.”
According to Turetsky, his group’s music is still intended for a sophisticated audience. “People, who show up at our concerts are those who know that a conservatory is not a place where you make conserved foods,” he jokes.
Diversity of program is one of the key factors in the group’s present success, Turetsky says, adding that diversity of this kind helps to find a middle ground between sustaining commercial viability and preserving artistic integrity. “If we sung only classical repertoire, it would be very diffi cult to survive without outside support,” he notes. “But diversity of repertoire makes what we do a commercial product in a way that makes people willing to buy tickets at much higher prices than, for instance, tickets to a classical venue such as Tchaikovsky Hall. As a result, we can exist without a sponsor.”
Meanwhile, the changes and transitions the group has made since its inception are far from complete. “The evolution of our group is not over,” Turetsky says. “Today’s world demands constant development and improvement from any artist.”