MUSIC REVIEW : The Red Army Chorus--A Show of Strength Inside, Outside Shrine

It was supposed to be an evening of cultural exchange--the famed Red Army Chorus making its much-ballyhooed Los Angeles debut on this first American tour.

But who could have known that exchange would take place on the street outside Shrine Auditorium? Or last there for three hours? Or include the rousing, spirited songs of an Armenian homeland under siege, as performed by more than 1,000 protesting emigres from that Soviet Republic?

The demonstrators--carrying signs that declared there was famine, disease and massacres of their people at the hands of the Azerbaijanis--thronged the area and blocked the entrances with bodies 20 deep on Thursday night.

"We don't care if the Red Army sings and dances," said one demonstrator, "but we must bring attention to the fact that their comrades-in-arms have not acted to protect the citizenry in Karabakh" (a disputed territory on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan).

Two hours after the scheduled 8 p.m. curtain, the doors to the Shrine remained closed. The protesters, generally peaceful and bursting into song from time to time, still lined the blocklong sidewalk in front, while the remaining audience members crammed the narrow pavement across the street.

Some of those with tickets, angered by the blockade, began singing "America" and yelling taunts. But by 10:20 p.m., ticket-holders filed past a parking lot to the rear entrance of a hall adjoining the Shrine. Inside, with the remains of a banquet still on tables, they were kept waiting there for half an hour and finally led into the auditorium as soon as the crowd outside was dispersed by police.

Forty minutes later the curtain rose to vigorous applause by about 300 determined spectators. And the Red Army Chorus and orchestra, with hammer-and-sickle and stars-and-stripes as a backdrop, applauded in return.

Wearing khaki uniforms in the style of airline pilots, the 80 singers and the orchestra launched into the American anthem followed by their own. And throughout the next hour and a half they did not disappoint those who thrilled to their recordings from the '60s.

True, the program was a hokey potpourri of songs and ethnic dancing in the best show-biz style. It included such international concert pops numbers as "Granada" and "I Got Plenty of Nothin," as sung by a positively stentorian Barseg Tumanyan, as well as the de rigueur "Dark Eyes" ("Otchitchornye") and "Kalinka."

But the sound of those massed male voices--a deep, cataclysmic roar that comes, seemingly, from across the steppes and falls to a hush--could not be mistaken for any other.

All the more reason to decry the odd amplification. But basso Eduard Labkovski, for one, rose above it for a doleful peace-making number called "Do the Russians Want War?" And Leonid Pshenichny in a rafter-ringing "Amapola," sang with an extrovert's sense of romantic Spanish grandeur.

The balalaikas in this excellent orchestra strummed, the whiz-bang solo whistlers embellished stanzas here and there, the perfectly drilled dancers performed their maneuvers (as well as a jitterbug and square dance) with virtuosic gusto and in a final gesture to its American hosts the company sang "God Bless America."

Surely some would have added Armenia to the title.

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