Last night, I attended the “On the Way to Christmas” concert by Romania’s Chamber Choir Madrigal. The uplifting program is appearing at Bucharest Opera House and features Romanian and international carols! The popular concert played to the fullest house I’ve seen in Bucharest so far.
Beloved by Romanians, Madrigal choir has been performing Christmas carols for almost sixty years. Their annual concert is a local tradition and “one of Bucharest’s longest-running cultural events”. The Choir’s “repertoire focuses on favorite, popular Christmas carols and European Renaissance, Gregorian, and Byzantine scores”.
The Honorary Director of the Madrigal ensemble is renowned international conductor Ion Marin. Since 2014, the Madrigal choir is managed by Emil Pantelimon.
Once again, I was at somewhat of a loss during the concert, since both the narrative and written program were in Romanian only. A portion of the performance was an on-stage portrayal of the war, with accompaniment by the choir. The dramatization depicts before, during, and after WWII bombings and the tragic effect the dark period of communism had on a Romanian family. In the end, the entire family survives and gives thanks. The dramatization was performed by actors Ofelia Popii and Marius Turdeanu and four children.
During its 58 years of existence, thousands of concerts, and hundreds of recordings, the National Chamber Choir Madrigal has “written history in the field of choral music”. After performing in major cities worldwide as well as small Romanian communities, both large and small venues applaud the choir with the same love and emotion.
As with most things Romanian, there’s usually more than meets the eye. The story of the Madrigal Choir goes much deeper than its inspiring chorale music.
Founded in 1963 by professor Marin Constantin, Romania’s most prestigious choral ensemble is rich in cultural heritage. Until 1968, the group was part of the National University of Music Bucharest, the legacy of composer Ciprian Porumbescu, creator of Romania’s first operetta, Crai Nou. In 1968, the choir successfully branched out and became professional. Today, they’re celebrated and embraced by UNESCO.
The thirty-eight-member choir is led by impressive conductor Anna Ungureanu, a staunch follower of founder Maestro Marin Constantin. Cezar Mihail Verlan is assistant conductor.
1960s Communist Era
Throughout the Communist era of the 1960s, Romania was “deeply isolated”. At that time, the Madrigal Choir was a “progressive choral music laboratory“. Inspired by the choir, Romanians were comforted when experiencing the calming sounds of familiar folk melodies and Byzantine songs. The Madrigal Choir became a “subtle yet spectacular form of dissidence” and an “indispensable propaganda tool”. During the “full oppressive communist regime, carols sung by Madrigal entered the collective consciousness of Romanians as a symbol of freedom”.
“Through Madrigal, the Communist Party constructed, in the eyes of the West, a false image of Romanian freedom. At the same time, the choir became a dissident accomplice of Romanians and their source of light in the communist darkness.”
“In a time when religion was considered a form of resistance, Maestro Constantin and his Madrigalists ransacked the attic of the communist patriarchy. They searched old scores and built a new aesthetic of religious music, transforming it from an orthodox tradition performed in church, into an unprecedented artistic event.”
Official Communist Party directives of the time “required all interpreters of opera, operetta, and vocal-symphonic music to sing foreign scores in Romanian only”. They forced the brutal changing of famous operatic works like Rigoletto, Carmen, and Aida to make them fit Romanian sounds.
The Madrigal Choir was the only institution that kept their repertoire in its original language. They translated pieces into Romanian and printed them in concert programs. The choir then led a titanic struggle with the cultural leadership of the Party to accept this compromise. They succeeded.”
“We are different, but when we sing, we are together, we are the same, and we are equally important. Happy Holidays, be healthy, and have peace in your souls!” Marin Constantin Conductor of the National Chamber Choir Madrigal
During the communist era, the Madrigal Choir was the “only formation that went outside the country”. They conducted tours in America and around the world, “putting Romania on the map of cultural diplomacy, during its most isolated and dark period”.
Awards and Recognition
The Madrigal Choir has received numerous awards. Some of their impressive accolades, include the UNICEF Medal, Cannes Palme d’Or, German Music Critics Prize, Luxemburg Grand Duke Adolf Prize and Medaille en Vermeil, and Romanian Diploma of Honor of the Union of Composers.
“The Ambassador of Freedom, Hope, and Peace award is an important symbol for our activity. The tradition of the National Chamber Choir Madrigal puts music at the service of multicultural values and peace, abolishing borders of any kind. In the reality of the present, in which conflicts divide even the great powers of the world, such an award is proof that people everywhere want to live in a world where music brings peace.” Emil Pantelimon, Manager National Chamber Choir Madrigal
“In 2016, the Madrigal Choir was officially recognized as Ambassador of Freedom, Hope, and Peace. They received the Jean Nussbaum and Eleanor Roosevelt Award at the United Nations Palace in Geneva, during the Global Summit of Religion, Peace, and Security. In 2018, the Madrigal Choir, led by conductor Anna Ungureanu, inaugurated the British Museum Library in London. The inauguration occurred within the framework of the Europe and the World Festival in Queen Victoria Reading Room, a location where until then, no musical events had taken place.
In 1992, Maestro Marin Constantin “transformed choral conducting into an act of love that earned him the coveted title of UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador“. He’s the only Romanian to ever hold this distinction.
Cantus Mundi National
Since 2011, the Madrigal Choir has been running the Cantus Mundi National Program, the “largest music social integration program for children in Romania. Initiated by Maestro Ion Marin, the program brings over 1,680 choirs and 60,000 children together in Romania”.
Through the Cantus Mundi program, “Music Class Stays on Schedule”, schools from rural and disadvantaged areas receive materials for music education development, carried out by the National Choir Madrigal. The program is supported in part by the Romanian Lottery.
Last night’s program included international holiday songs like “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Joy to the World,” and a suite of Romanian and Byzantine Christmas carols. Children from the Cantus Mundi National Program joined the Madrigal on stage, and they all sang together under the baton of conductor Anna Angureanu.
At the end of the concert, children of the Cantus Mundi flooded Opera House aisles, sounding their voices alongside those of the Madrigal. The audience was also invited to sing along.
Christmas in Bucharest
This year, I’m celebrating Christmas and New Years in Bucharest, and considering a few day trips outside the city. Romania is a beautiful country, and there are several captivating areas on my list to explore – Maramures, Sighișoara, Bucovina and Suceava, Cluj-Napoca, Timişoara, Sibiu, and the Jiu Valley in Central-West Romania – to name a few.
Romania has many superstitions. Old Romanian Christmas traditions like Ursul (bear) and Capra (goat), where carolers dress up as bears and goats and dance, are seen during holiday celebrations in the countryside. Some of these places involve long-haul (10+ hour) train rides, which at this point in my travels, may be a bit prohibitive. The closer ones are more feasible.
After several months in Bucharest, there’s still no lack of interesting venues and activities. Abundant holiday concerts and sparkling Christmas lights throughout the city are alluring. Despite covid, the Romanian people seem carefree and in a festive mood! The weather has been wild, with snow flurries in the forecast.
You certainly are having a cultural Christmas
Yes, and Bucharest is an interesting city! Most people like spending Christmas at home, but over the last 10 years or so I’ve enjoyed celebrating it in many different countries. Culture seems to be what holds things together.