Presented by the Yale School of Music, the concert starred some 140 “Old Blues” who filed out to increasing applause from family members, friends and fans of the lusty “rip open your shirt” male vocal tradition passed down at Yale since the chilliest days of the Cold War.
Made up of 70-something men and many more a decade or two younger, the choristers sang the Tsarist and Red Army songs, Russian liturgical and folk music fare that brought the YRC into being in 1953, leading to a citation in The Wall Street Journal that the singers were “Diplomats of Song,” and credit from then Yale Chaplain (and future famed peace activist) William Sloane Coffin for helping to tear down the Iron Curtain.
While relatively few of the chorus members actually spoke Russian, they learned to sing it so well via Russian-English language transcription that when they first performed in Moscow in 1958, they transformed the preconceptions of America held by propagandized Muscovites.
They have since completed 16 tours of Russia and Eastern Europe while winning international choral competitions, releasing 18 recordings and performing in the world’s leading concert halls. Chorus members have become prominent representatives of government and leaders in human rights movements, and the chorus itself is now the oldest continuously performing Russian singing group in America.
"The Yale Russian Chorus Alumni 60th Anniversary Gala Concert DVD showcases Yale’s most extraordinary singing group, the oldest continuously performing Russian chorus in the Americas,” says George Litton, the YRC’s founding president. “We were 140 men, returning from all corners of the globe, reuniting to deliver impassioned performances of the classics of the Russian choral repertoire under the direction of founding conductor Denis Mickiewicz and his successors.”
Notes Daniel V. Gsovski, YRC conductor from 1964-1968: "What amazed me most about the 60th was our sudden ability, through sheer willpower--or more likely having Denis on the podium for essentially the whole concert--to achieve many specific technical things like particular tempi, articulations and dynamics, which Denis had been futilely begging for concert after concert as the years and decades passed.”
“Yet, particularly in the religious numbers, all of this and more came forward as if we were encountering the music for the first time as we performed it,” adds Gsovski. “This was truly both a testament to, and a legacy from our ataman [a Cossack term for elected leader]. For this to have happened as every other capability we possess continues to diminish was inexplicable. But then again, so is genius."
New York-based ITAR-TASS Russian news agency correspondent Sasha Gavrilova attended the concert with her husband, also an ITAR-TASS correspondent, Andrei Bekrenev.
“We were amazed by the energy and enthusiasm demonstrated by each and every member of the chorus,” she says. “It was obvious that they liked the songs they sang, felt them deeply and understood them. Although only a few choristers knew Russian, they sang with almost no accent. Every word was distinguishable, and this is not always achieved even by professional Russian choruses.”
“In every song the very ‘Russian soul’ was discernible,” continues Gavrilova. “The choristers managed to convey to the public the dashing courage and the hidden sorrow so characteristic of the Russian folk songs.”
The event was commemorated by Yale president Peter Salovey, who wrote of the chorus: “Throughout the years you have brought honor to this institution, not only through the excellence of your music, but also through your significant contributions to international understanding and peace. Your university salutes you on this very special evening.”
“Our spirit of brotherhood rang out in Yale’s historic Woolsey Hall,” concludes Litton. “We’ll never forget it."
The Alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus’s 60th Anniversary Gala Concert DVD is available from the YRC Alumni Association through its website or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to the complete Woolsey Hall performance, it also includes the special guest appearance by the women of the Yale Slavic Chorus.
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