Ensemble Basiani performs secular, sacred Georgian music

By Caela Murphy

Ensemble Basiani, a choral group from the Republic of Georgia, will perform an array of secular Georgian folk music alongside sacred Eastern Orthodox choral pieces at the Hopkins Center tonight.

Composed of 12 members from various regions of Georgia, Ensemble Basiani was formed in 2000 as part of the Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral Church choir. The name Basiani, which was taken from the region in southwest Georgia where Georgian royal troops defeated the Turks in the 13th century, invokes victory and national pride, according to Zurab Tskrialashvili, the ensemble’s public relations representative.

Since its creation, the ensemble has gone on multiple international tours, traveling to some 20 countries and performing in over 200 concerts. The performance in Spaulding Auditorium, however, marks the ensemble’s first time singing in the United States since 2010, when the group performed at Lincoln Center in New York City. Tskrialashvili described the performance as an influential one, both for his ensemble and for Georgian music in general.

“It was a big step in the development in Georgian music because it was the first time it was presented to an American audience,” Tskrialashvili said.

The songs that have been selected for Ensemble Basiani’s performance tonight are from several different regions of the Republic of Georgia and convey a broad spectrum of Georgian vocal music. The same piece of music will be performed in different styles depending on which part of Georgia it is played in, Tskrialashvili said. The religious piece “Shen Khar Venakhi,” for instance, will be sung both in the tradition of Kartli-Kakheti of eastern Georgia and in that of Guris of western Georgia.

“We’re going to perform both regional versions so that the audience can compare the two,” Tskrialashvili said in a translated interview. “The core of Georgia is in their singing.”

Although Georgian folk music has become an essential expressive element of Georgian culture since its origination thousands of years ago, its existence was challenged by historical obstacles. When Russia abolished the independent Georgian Church in the early 19th century, the singing of Georgian sacred songs was forbidden, Tskrialashvili said. Although Georgians managed to hold onto these traditional songs, they could not be expressed as freely as they had been in the past.

“People still sang it, but it wasn’t as open as it is now,” Tskrialashvili said.

With the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Georgia gained its independence, spurring a revival of the Georgian Orthodox Church and of Georgian sacred chant music.

Tskrialashvili added that he hopes the performance will give the audience a good impression of Georgia and its people.

“We hope that the audience will take away the understanding and impression of Georgia, its people, its soul and its character — what Georgia is all about,” he said.

Ensemble Basiani Art Director George Donadze, who was responsible for arranging the order of the 18 songs that will be performed, interspersed secular folk songs with religious hymns. The folk music performed tonight will include traditional work songs, table songs, ritual songs, lyric-love songs, two circle dances and a historical ballad, according to the Hopkins Center’s program notes. These secular songs will be interspersed with Georgian Orthodox hymns. Translations of the song lyrics will be available in the performance’s program.

“Our music really impacts people’s emotions,” Donadze said. “It’s beautiful music.”

Different types of Georgian folk songs are applied to various aspects of Georgian daily life and culture, according to Tskrialashvili. There are specific songs for mealtime, for battle and for different forms of labor.

“Each song has its definite place to be performed,” Tskrialashvili said.

Despite each song having a specific purpose, however, ensemble member Elizbar Khachidze emphasized that there are multiple interpretations for each song.

“Everyone understands the music in their own way,” he said.

Last night, Ensemble Basiani taught a choral master class for the Dartmouth Glee Club in Faulkner Recital Hall, providing the Glee Club members and other spectators a behind-the-scenes look at some of the work that has gone into the ensemble’s performance tonight.

The ensemble was introduced to the audience, and members of the group spoke briefly about the history of the ensemble and of Georgian folk music in general. The Glee Club then performed two songs for Ensemble Basiani — Franz Schubert’s classical “Mass G,” followed by “Deep River,” an African-American spiritual, arranged by Moses Hogan. The members of Ensemble Basiani said they were impressed by the Glee Club, and Tskrialashvili observed that some of the members of Ensemble Basiani were singing along with the Schubert piece.

Ensemble Basiani subsequently performed its own music, singing three songs that will appear in tonight’s playbill. They started with “Shen Khar Venakhi,” a religious song from eastern Georgia about the Virgin Mary. Next, the group performed the work song “Odoia,” which originated in western Georgia. The performance was topped off with the historical ballad “Khasanbegura,” also from western Georgia.

Louis Burkot, the director of the Dartmouth Glee Club, utilized the performance as a learning experience for the glee club members, indicating to them some of the techniques, such as staggered breathing, that the ensemble had mastered.

Ensemble Basiani will perform tonight in Spaulding Auditorium at 7 p.m.