Classics in any genre

[b]The music group Belarusy brings international hits to our national culture [/b]Valery Shmat, who heads the Belarusy music group, has created an unusual ensemble. Critics feel that its name sounds rather pretentious, but the group includes great soloists and artists who have more than justified their claim to this honourable name. Nikolay Zakharchuk is an operatic baritone and Alexander Kovalev has perfect bel canto technique. Vitaly Zyuskin is a lyrical tenor while Igor Retivykh boasts a deep bass voice. These talents help them turn classical music into pop perfection. Their style is unique because they bring world famous hits to Belarusian culture. They perform well-known songs in their original language and in Belarusian. We talked to Mr. Shmat about their creative activities.
The music group Belarusy brings international hits to our national culture

Valery Shmat, who heads the Belarusy music group, has created an unusual ensemble. Critics feel that its name sounds rather pretentious, but the group includes great soloists and artists who have more than justified their claim to this honourable name. Nikolay Zakharchuk is an operatic baritone and Alexander Kovalev has perfect bel canto technique. Vitaly Zyuskin is a lyrical tenor while Igor Retivykh boasts a deep bass voice. These talents help them turn classical music into pop perfection. Their style is unique because they bring world famous hits to Belarusian culture. They perform well-known songs in their original language and in Belarusian. We talked to Mr. Shmat about their creative activities.

Mr. Shmat, how did the group Belarusy come about?
My teacher was Victor Rovdo, a People’s Artist of the USSR and prominent choirmaster, and decided to continue his choral traditions. However, in creating my own group, I saw it as an all-male ensemble. Later I realised that it would have to be a small group, as it would be very expensive to have a lot of members. My goal was financial self-sufficiency and we now manage to pay our own way. That would have been impossible if we had worked exclusively in the classical genre. Our country isn’t big and there are plenty of classically trained bands, which means tough competition. In any case, our people aren’t so keen on classical art; they don’t attend ancient, spiritual or classical music concerts as frequently as they attend pop concerts.

Your group is currently one of the most popular male bands. What’s your secret?
The secret is simple. I’ve selected unique voices, which are completely different: baritone, bass and tenor. I have included no one with less than the equivalent of a conservatoire education. I also feel that charisma plays as vital a role as professional ability. I believe that no one can become an artist if they lack individuality. A person should be interesting in life as well as on stage.

You are all so different. How do you manage to get on together?
I’m shaping a whole from the diverse parts you see on stage. It’s a little like a game of chess, where the pieces differ from each other. We manage to perform well together. There are currently five of us and that’s enough for the moment. But that’s not necessarily the final number — the group is likely to expand to seven or nine soloists. Music for multiple voices has always been and remains my forte and I would be trying to create it even if I only had three people working with me.

In which languages do you sing?
We were the first to perform ‘Adagio’ by Tomaso Albinoni, ‘Bйsame Mucho’ and Frank Sinatra’s songs in Belarusian, as well as in their original versions. We also do a lot of rock-n-roll and perform the Argentinean tango, ‘Hava Nagila’ and ‘Jingle Bells’. We sing in Russian, Belarusian, Latin and English. We also plan to perform in Georgian and Polish. It takes a lot of time to prepare these performances, plus we have concerts across the country and abroad almost every day.

Do audiences sing along with you at the concerts?
Of course. People enjoy listening and singing. That’s normal. Singing is a natural human impulse, particularly of good people. Goethe wrote that angry people don’t sing as a rule. When everything is ok in life, we always sing or hum something, even without noticing it.

Do you only sing live?
What other way is there? I don’t believe in lip-synching and recorded music. One hundred years ago people couldn’t just listen at home to material; they had to come to a hall, sit down, listen and observe. When you do that, you see what’s going on with people, how they move their hands, how their eyes move and even how they sweat. That’s a genuine way to experience music. Musical scores are just a small part of what a composer wanted to express, and a recording is also just a small part of what an author wanted to express. Anyway, these days, everything can be polished up in the studio and even the most dreadful singers who can’t sing a note can sound quite good after computer processing. Our group consists of five voices, which need no ‘polishing’. They perform hundreds of thousands of notes, sung live, in concert. I’ve chosen the very best artists for the band. It’s not enough to sing with emotion, people also want to be entertained — they want a spectacular show. We give the public what it wants. It’s dazzling when one of us sings ‘O Sole Mio’ and suddenly begins to somersault — everyone just expects us to stand still and sing beautifully. So in the nearest time, we’ll be polishing our choreography and stage movement. We’ll be creating a show.

The title Belarusy and the word ‘show’ are somehow at odds …
Our group aims to sing beautifully and to provide a show while combining the Belarusian language with great masterpieces. This was done in Russia dozens of years ago when outstanding choral pieces were translated from their native language. Now, I have a new project in mind and will try to bring it to the world stage. We are aware of bands who work in Latin and combine ancient languages, culture and traditions. I already have material for this project: electronic music and a cappella singing combined with ancient Slavonic languages and Greek. This may evolve into a melding of Slavonic and western features — a trend currently very popular in the west. It’s a form of cultural ecumenism — an aspiration to combine cultures. It’s easy for we Belarusians to combine all these cultural elements. We are a nation that emerged from a joining of east and west.

You’re also running a vocal studio for youngsters, yet there are already plenty of performers in Belarus. Isn’t there a risk that the music market will become ‘overcrowded’?
No. We are not aiming to flood the market with new singers but to give children an opportunity to realise their artistic potential. I’ve opened a vocal studio, where parents can bring their children to learn to work in front of an audience. A music school provides professional training and children learn to sing with a microphone and to work with pop music. We also offer courses in choreography. All this will help them in future to get a round of applause — even to win contests. While a classical music school provides theoretical knowledge, we offer practical skills. Children watch television and dream of singing with a microphone — we teach them how to sing and how to express emotions.

Is your work great art or show-biz?
For me, ‘Belarusy’ is a sense of life. I don’t remember when my working day finished at 6pm. I sleep 4-5 hours a night and sometimes don’t get in from work until 2am. My sister asks me why I want such a life.

And what do you say to her?
When there are opportunities for self-actualisation, you throw yourself into a sea of creative activity and swim not thinking about when you’ll have time to rest. You want to swim and swim. Of course, if I had a lot of money, I would hire several sound engineers and tutors, who would do half of my work. Instead, since our group doesn’t have many resources, we have to earn money to pay salaries, taxes and rent. We’ve managed to become a profitable band and we don’t need state support. That’s the most important thing. Last year, we performed 120 concerts and that’s just the beginning.

By Viktar Korbut
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