Why the Chicken Crossed the Nevsky Prospect – The Terem Quartet does Pretoria

I last saw that paragon of Russian folk art ensembles, the Terem Quartet, when they played at the WOMAD festival in Benoni eleven years ago. After last night I am certain that I am one of only two people who hold the absurdly elite honour of having been to both of the performances given by these exceptional artists in this country. Having been brought to this country to form part of the Festival of Russian Art in South Africa 2009, the quartet gave a splendid performance last night in the ZK Matthews hall in Pretoria – a performance rendered all the more poignant because there were a grand total of 25 people in attendance. A sense of acute embarrassment on behalf of the poor artists was palpable amongst the mostly Russian audience, but this did nothing to phase the quartet, which pulled off an emotionally engrossing fireworks display of a concert.

The ensemble’s hallmark is it’s blending of high-art Russian classical music with what is rapidly becoming the archaic folk music of that country. This in itself says nothing: crossover is the genre de rigeur, and we suffer a surfeit of them. What distinguishes this quartet from the hordes of loop-machine wielding, throat singing, didgeridoo-toting collectors of Peter Gabriel records that are trotted onto stage at most folk festivals is this group’s superb grasp of the dynamics of live performance. Slaves to the little black boxes – those monoliths glorifying the golden calf which is modern music – these boys are not! They play very softly indeed, with the zing of plectrum sliding across string clearly audible, like the click which accompanies a register change on that T-72 tank of the accordion family, the massive bayan-accordeon. And is there schtick – hooo-boy, is there schtick! Slapstick, burlesque, farce, satire and pathos, in glaring primary colours or in shaded nuance, abound.

One of the nice things about representing a full ten percent of the entire audience is that you get to meet the band afterwards. Once the quartet had played its heart out (and given the short supply of audience feedback during the performance it became clear that this is exactly what they were doing) the Russian delegation, led by a terribly concerned woman clutching the flowers which Russians throw at artists they like (when have you seen flowers thrown at the stage in the Linder Auditorium?) rushed backstage to comfort the poor, doubtlessly embarrassed musicians. They were followed closely by equally concerned and embarrassed ex-diplomat Afrikaaners and their scandalized wives. Somehow we were caught up in this great swirling mass (a crowd has a mind of its own) and swept into the greenroom, where the apartheid architecture and the sound of educated, polished Russian fooled us into believing we were in the USSR of Brezhnev. Which illusion was rent in pieces when we noticed the pathetic fruit basket provided to these people (who had arrived only that morning). They were polite, these Russians, picking at the single kiwi fruit in the bowl, but we all know what they were thinking: where is the vodka, champagne and caviar? And why did the chicken cross the Nevsky Prospect, if all its efforts earned it was a little sympathy and a single soggy, furry, exotic fruit?

Final score: Philistines 7 (4) – Russians 0 (0)

The chicken was red-carded. He’ll never play in South Africa again.

(Written April 2009)

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