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The Yale Alumni Russian Chorus filled Duke Chapel on October 1 with the glorious sound of one hundred men singing Russian liturgical music, Lezghi, Cossack, and soldier songs, folk songs, and popular African-American spirituals. The program notes informed us that "The Yale Russian Chorus was founded in 1953 during the Cold War, when Russian vocal music was little known in the United States. The group quickly established a special place among American choirs."
Behind this sensational chorus is Denis Mickiewicz, Professor Emeritus at Duke University, now living in Chapel Hill. He was born into a Russian family living in Latvia. He showed early interest in music and by age eight was playing concert guitar. He began piano studies at ten and also sang in the children's choir in Riga. The Mickiewicz family came to the United States in 1952 and he enrolled in the Yale School of Music. There, in 1953, Mickiewicz and George Litton drew together a small group of Russian-language students and formed the Yale Russian Chorus, which has grown steadily since then in size, repertoire, and reputation. Mickiewicz has taught and been department head in Slavic Languages and Literatures in several prestigious universities. He has also continued to develop his musical interests and has written some notable compositions, not only for chorus but also for instrumental ensembles.
The bulk of the concert was conducted by Mickiewicz, with David-Marc Finley, Daniel Gsovski, and Bruce Lieberman stepping in from time to time to lead the hundred or so men – and three or four women, used for special effects. All are alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus over the 50-plus years of its existence. It is significant to note that the entire concert was sung without any sign of sheet music or scores in sight. The choir and the directors alike had memorized it all. The pitch for each piece was provided by Mickiewicz, who has perfect pitch and perfect understanding of the music.
The other thing that amazed me about this choir was the solid harmonic structure built on basses who could almost rattle the stones. I heard many low Cs and some low B-flats that were crowned with harmonies that sent shudders through my body. Oh yes, and one more thing I must not forget: the astonishingly fine soloists that dredged the last full measure of emotion from each passage they sang. Though the singing of the chorus occasionally reflected more enthusiasm than finesse, it was a special and totally unique experience.
Many of the liturgical selections were quite awesome, demonstrating the Orthodox propensity to prayers and incense ascending to the Almighty. Selections by Arkhangelsky that ended the first half of the program were truly special.
The Lezghi, Cossack, and soldier songs portrayed much of the robustness of the Russian soul. Bravery and deep-seated hostilities, longing and lamenting, resignation, and joy are all part of the womb out of which these songs were born. And when they concluded the program with African-American spirituals, one of which was "Steal Away," it seemed quite clear that all souls are related in one humanity.
One of the worthy goals the Yale Russian Chorus is to foster international and interpersonal understanding through singing. They have accomplished this goal through concerts and joint singing exchanges around the world and through the music they have chosen to express the nobility of the human spirit.