The 60th Anniversary celebration of the Yale Russian Chorus (YRC) Alumni, to be held at Woolsey Hall in New Haven on Nov. 10, will bring together a Buddhist monk, a former solicitor general of the United States, a former American ambassador, the president of Tuskegee University, and a bush pilot.
They’ll join over 100 other highly disparate “Old Blues” in singing the passionate renditions of Russian liturgical, folk, army, and well-known composed songs that according to then Yale Chaplain William Coffin helped tear down the Iron Curtain.
Indeed, the YRC, which was founded in 1953 at the height of the Cold War, was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “diplomats of song." Senator Hubert Humphrey said that the U.S. should have had 50 or 100 choruses like the YRC.
The chorus originated when faculty advisor and Yale Russian Club president George Litton asked Yale Music School student Denis Mickiewicz to teach the group a few traditional Russian folk songs.
Mickiewicz brought guitar and mimeographed arrangements--and a bottle of vodka under each arm. His passion for the Russian choral repertoire transcended the vocal limitations of the club, whose approximations of the virile “rip open your shirt” songs were unlike anything ever heard before at Yale.
The chorus soon began touring to Smith and Vassar—all-women’s schools at that time—and when word of its success with the ladies reverberated back to the Yale campus, veterans of Yale’s established singing groups began infiltrating the Russian Chorus membership.
In 1958, upon signature of the Lacey-Zarubin Cultural Exchange Agreement, the Yale Russian Chorus broached the Iron Curtain with their first performances in Russia. Singing on street corners, the young “Old Blues” (Yale Blue, of course, being the school’s color) were surrounded by incredulous Muscovites, whose propaganda-fed conceptions of America were forever transformed.
But the chorus still faced difficult times at home. When one of its African-American members was refused service during an early American tour, all instantly arose and left the restaurant. In the McCarthy era, the chorus was detained in Ohio while state police checked to make sure it was not a subversive organization.
But chorus members would later become prominent representatives of government and and leaders in human rights movements.
In its 60 years, the YRC completed 16 tours of the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, won international choral competitions, released 18 recordings, serenaded Presidents Carter, de Gaulle and Gorbachev and performed in the world’s leading concert halls. It’s 25th anniversary concert took place at Carnegie Hall, and the group made five additional Carnegie appearances. It is now the oldest continuously performing Russian singing group in America.
Mickiewicz has remained the musical and spiritual leader, having guided the conductors who succeeded him after he left Yale to pursue his academic career. Although he’s now a professor emeritus at Duke University, he continues to conduct all major YRC concerts, including the upcoming 60th anniversary gala.
Corresponding with the 60th anniversary, the YRC just published Mickiewicz’s arrangements of its songs, which encompass the extreme ranges from high falsetto to bass profundo that are unique to the Russian choral repertoire.
Meanwhile, YRC alumni still perform throughout the world. Performances in recent years have included Russia, San Francisco, Wellesley, Minneapolis, and New York’s 92nd Street Y.
Litton, who now serves as YRC founding president, stresses that the 60th Anniversary Gala in no way the Chorus’s swan song.
“How long can a group of sexagenarians and septuagenarians continue to belt out their high-energy repertoire? You’d be surprised!” he says. “It’s the songs and brotherhood that have kept the chorus young."
He reports that the YRC youngsters have just received an invitation for a 2014 appearance at a leading American music festival—the first, perhaps, of many.
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