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Yale 62

The Yale Russian Chorus faces a difficult challenge.
By John Stewart

YRC in Russia, 2019

At the height of the cold war in the ’50s, a club began at Yale, to understand and learn more about Russia and the Soviet Union. Denis Mickewicz, studying in the Dept of Slavic Languages and the Yale School of Music, was invited to lead some Russian songs, and in a short time by virtue of his great charisma, musical and compositional gifts, and knowledge of sacred and secular Slavic choral literature, had attracted good enough voices to perform really challenging repertoire. When I listen to recordings of the Yale Glee Club and Russian chorus, both groups offered a massive, rich sound. Both Glee Club director Fenno Heath and Denis shared a love of dramatic dynamic shifts, huge forte endings. At the time we were more aware of the differences. The Glee Club was relatively in lockstep getting on and off-stage, while the YRC just got on any old way. In the end Denis offered a more untrammeled glee experience of singing (“Boys – rip your shirts!”) but there was still plenty of joy in the Glee Club. The main difference was that the personnel of the YRC included many grad students who as a category were not invited into the Glee Club, bringing to the YRC more mature voices.

Except for a brief 15-year interregnum when the current director of the at-Yale YRC took an esthetic far removed from Denis and his successors, more scholarly, academic and (in my opinion) far less interesting, which had reduced the group to five members, the alumni have not only done concerts on their own but have happily reunited with the current New Haven group.

The current war has opened up a can of worms about the whole enterprise. For months there has been daily email discussions about what to do. On one extreme, one alum has suggested disbanding the group. Toward the middle, the suggestion has been proffered to change the name to The Yale Eastern European Chorus, which seems too chewy. (Already in existence is the Yale Slavic Chorus, a charming group of women, although the YRC also includes women) YRC alum Harlow Robinson wrote an article in the Boston Globe about Russian music which eloquently states the most sensible attitude – to separate the culture from Putin. (See “How Russian is Russian Music?”)

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Yale students have presented a certain complication.

I think the group is keeping its head down, going ahead and recruiting, making it known that the repertoire includes much not Russian Slavic and Georgian music, and postponing this summer’s planned Russian excursion.

P.S. I sang in the Yale Glee Club for three years and joined the YRC for a Russian tour in the summer of 1963.

We welcome your comments below.

4 comments to The Yale Russian Chorus faces a difficult challenge.

  • Barry Smoler

    A recently deceased Yale’62 classmate of ours and good friend of mine, Ted Volckhausen, sang in the Yale Russian Chorus. When Ted and I were students at Harvard Law, he sang in the chorus of a production of Boris Godunov performed by a major opera company touring in Boston. Ted also sang in his church choir in Manhattan for many years. He was fluent in Russian. He enjoyed singing with the YRC and I enjoyed listening to them. I have one of their, now antique, CDs. Your news is distressing.

    • John Stewart

      HI Barry,
      Thanks for writing. I think they will survive. There were all sorts of suggestions, some very extreme, like change the name and stop singing Russian music, but I think entropy will rule and they’ll just keep a lower profile for a while – the challenge of course is recruitment.

  • Norm Jackson

    Thanks, John, for this excellent contribution.

    I studied Russian for a year while at Yale, and had the pleasure of singing with the ‘Minchivicki’ (as opposed to the ‘Bolshevicki’, the full chorus, since my voice wasn’t strong enough), which Denis graciously allowed from time to time sing with the Chorus. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I thought I’d learned a bit about Russian culture. When I finally got to Russia in the seventies, I found that I didn’t remember much Russian, that nobody knew any of the songs we sang, and that all my idealistic dreams vanished, but it was still fun!

    One of my favourite songs to this day is ‘There Once Lived Twelve Brigands’, sung by the YRC under Denis’ direction, which I’ve uploaded for you here on Dropbox:

    It’s clear the Chorus is between a rock and a hard spot. I hope their repertoire is still based on traditional folk music, and that we can still succeed in separating music from politics. Maybe a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian music — if there is a difference, as I suspect there is — would be good for comparison and appreciation?

    They certainly should cancel any excursions to Russia, and probably to Ukraine. Ukrainian students at Yale — and for that matter, Russian students — should receive all the support they need.

    Let’s remember — if I’m correct — that this is Putin’s war, not Russia’s.