The artistic director of St Petersburg University choir Edward Krotman talked about who is hired to work at one of the oldest amateur choirs in Russia, and how to learn to love classical music.

Edward, please tell us about the choir’s recent concerts.

One of them took place on 11th June in the Grand Hall of St Petersburg Philharmonia. We performed the cantata “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff. Also, the choir has recently been awarded the first prize in the regional round of the Russian choir festival. If we make it through in the regionals, we shall take part in the finals in Moscow. We keep on working; this is the most important.

Edward Krotman has been a master of St Petersburg university choir since 1994. He was awarded a medal of the Order “For Merit of the Fatherland” of the II degree. He is a creator and CEO of the festival of choirs of different universities “Petrovskaya cantata”. For developing culture and arts and for long-term fruitful work Edward was commended by the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin.

Your rendition of The Peacemakers by Karl Jenkins is widely known thanks to the performance at Carnegie Hall. But you also performed a piece of a no less popular Argentine composer…

At the producer centre of Carnegie Hall they decided to do a project with “The Peacemakers” performed by a united amateur choir of singers from all over the world. We were invited to take part because at that moment we were the only choir in Russia to sing this piece of music.

Astor Piazzolla is an Argentine composer of the second part of the 20th century; the pioneer of a musical style “tango nuevo” – traditional Argentine tango incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. Martin Palmeri is one of his successors.

The same project was implemented with “Misatango” by an Argentine composer Martin Palmeri. We had performed this piece of music many times and the last one was this season in the Grand Philharmonic hall. The composer is our contemporary, and “Misatango” is a very colourful music in Astora Piazzolla’s style. Just imagine a combination of a messa, a spiritual catholic liturgy, and a tango. Martin Palmeri’s work is exceptionally subtle and professional, the piece of music is interwoven with rhythms of tango, and yet it stays within the classical music canon. It has a very pleasant and fresh sound. A traditional Argentine concertina bandoneon has a solo. When we were at Carnegie Hall singing “The Peacemakers”, we got to meet both Jenkins and Palmeri. The latter played the piano solo in his own piece of music. I did not manage to talk to him in person, but at the rehearsal I could clearly see all the stylistic nuances, for example, how to play a tango, how passionate, fast or slow it should be.

One of the peculiar things about your choir is the excellence of the singers. Is it difficult to get a place in the University choir, and how do you select candidates?

We have about 100 singers in the choir, and around 60 or 70 of them perform at concerts. We have a constant staff turnover: some of students go to take an internship in a different city and then come back. At the beginning of an academic year we have a lot of first-year students who want to sing in the choir. I never reject anyone. Everybody can be interviewed and then have an audition. Many of them are accepted, but for a probationary period. Each week we have two main rehearsals and sometimes additional ones. Not every student is capable of combining choir and study. It is especially difficult for the first- and second-year students. The level of singers is becoming better and better each year. We have many young people who have studied at musical schools or even colleges, and they set a certain bar. Even talented students without the background of a professional music education cannot keep up with us, as the work pace is very high.

Can University graduates continue singing and performing with the choir?

Of course they can. The graduates who decide to stay with the choir and continue to be engaged in art, are the most valuable people in the choir. They became real masters of choir singing and lead the newcomers. But for them, we would have had to start from scratch all the time. Seeing them, the rookies are catching up fast.

Several generations of artists changed in front of your eyes. Are the young people nowadays different somehow from the ones who worked with you 20 years ago?  

I have been thinking about it and I will try to be objective and not offend the previous generations. When I began to lead the choir, there were only my peers. I myself had just graduated from the Conservatory, and they were students of the University. Were they slower thinkers than today’s young people? No, of course not. And yet I have to admit that times have changed a lot, the speed of processing information has changed, and now students study much faster. At the same time the previous generation had their own advantages, for example, team spirit, which is so necessary if you sing in a choir.

How would you define the main problem of a choir master?

You must be a tutor, a guide to music. You must cultivate a love of choir singing, and develop a good taste for music. And, of course, you must learn music material and make a solid piece of art out of it. And the better you succeed in doing it, the more successful you will be.

Your advice: how to learn to love and to understand classical music and choir singing?

There is such serious noise pollution and such a huge information stream, that it is hard for art to fight its way to people.  You should listen to classical music, even if you do not understand it. You should nourish your subconscious and your heart with it. If you have a possibility, you should practice music yourself. You should develop yourself, just like you train your body in the gym. And with time you will understand music and want to listen to it. This is why I am so grateful to the University and its administration for supporting us and for letting us preserve the art of choir singing. Not only can students of St Petersburg University receive an education, but they can also become cultured and cultivated people. Is it that often that a science student can claim to sing “The Requiem” by Mozart? Yet at this university it is very possible.