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Feeling His Way

World music: O.C.-bound Russian pianist urges intuition over score for Bulgarian choir and Tuvan throat singers.


Mikhail Alperin is zealous about musician's intuition. The Russian composer, teacher and improvisational pianist preaches that feelings should guide musical response, rather than just established styles, techniques and written notes.

Credit Alperin's intuition with forging a recording and touring alliance of two of the most celebrated and distinctive ensembles in world music: Bulgarian Voices--Angelite, the remarkable women's choir, and Huun-Huur-Tu, the four-man group of astonishing singers and instrumentalists from the Siberian republic of Tuva.

This East-meets-not-so-East partnership arrives at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Friday, with Alperin's own folk-jazz-classical ensemble, the Moscow Art Trio, added to a mix that interweaves the talents of 25 singers and players from three separate cultures.

The piercing beauty of Bulgarian women's choral music reached America to wide critical acclaim in 1987. It was sung by a 24-voice ensemble billed as Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, now descriptively renamed Angelite, Bulgarian for "angels." For economic reasons, the touring choir has been pared to 18 singers.

Huun-Huur-Tu has been a hit here since the 1993 release of the album "60 Horses in My Herd: Old Songs and Tunes of Tuva." It showcased the galloping rhythms and almost otherworldly vocal effects of traditional Tuvan music, which range from elemental bass tones to whistling, oscillating highs. Huun-Huur-Tu's secret weapon is a Tuvan technique known as "throat singing," in which a single vocalist generates two harmonized notes at once.

The seed of this collaboration was sown on a Russian railroad coach in 1993. To pass the travel time during one of the Moscow Art Trio's tours, Alperin listened to cassettes of a Russian folk choir and a traditional Tuvan throat-singing group that his group's singer, Sergey Starostin, had brought along. In a phone interview last week from a hotel in Arlington, Va., Alperin recalled getting a sudden intuition: What if they played both tapes simultaneously?

"I was amazed, shocked. How beautiful," the lively Alperin recounted. "I heard so similar intonations, so similar modes."

Replicating his rail-car experience, Alperin recruited a Russian folk choir and a Tuvan group (not Huun-Huur-Tu) for an album called "Prayer." Soon afterward, he relocated to teach piano and improvisation at a state academy in Oslo, where he lives with his Norwegian wife and their daughter. In Norway, Alperin first heard the Bulgarian "Le Mystere" albums. "I lived all my life in Russia, and didn't know they had such a beautiful tradition in Bulgaria," he said.

He began to dream of repeating with Bulgarians and Tuvans what he had done with Russians and Tuvans. In a turn of luck, the owner of the German record company that issues the Bulgarian choir's albums heard Alperin's "Prayer" while traveling in Russia; Alperin soon had a commission to carry out his vision.


In November 1995, Angelite and Huun-Huur-Tu came face-to-face for the first time in a studio in Sofia, under conditions that Alperin says did not at first look promising.

"When I heard Bulgarians the first time on the ['Le Mystere'] record, I imagined a beautiful sunshine. But it was a very gray and cold day. They're sitting with kind of sad faces and [frosted] breath from the mouth. First I proposed, 'Can you sing to each other?' After five minutes of Tuvinians singing for them, the Bulgarians were smiling, screaming and shouting. It was unbelievable. And when Bulgarians started singing for Tuvinians, one of Tuvinians, Sayan Bapa, said, 'Misha, they're singing even better than the Manhattan Transfer.' "

With the two groups singing music Alperin wrote around traditional motifs, and Starostin adding parts redolent of both Russian folk ballads and the cantorial music of Alperin's Jewish background, the music fell together as Alperin had intuited.

"Folk music in general has similar roots all over," Alperin said. "We have different colors around us, but this is only on the surface. Deep down we have the same ideas, moods, and a lot of similar background. I had imagined [it would be] a fantastic idea to have a musical family where the Bulgarians represent the mother, the Tuvinians the father, with Russian son and Jewish brother."


The collaborative album, "Fly, Fly My Sadness," emerged last year. The large ensemble is performing in America for the first time after two tours in Europe. The repertoire has undergone some trial-and-error fine-tuning so that no one feels slighted.

"It's very natural: Who is taking more attention during the concert? It's not much [jealousy]. Generally, we have a warm atmosphere in the project. We feel like a real family--not only a musical family but also a human family."

Angelite, Huun-Huur-Tu and the Moscow Art Trio each get at least one song to themselves, Alperin said, and perform the rest of the program in various combinations of voices and instruments, including several pieces for all hands.

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