This Saturday at 7 p.m., for the first time in more than twenty years, Yale’s Russian Chorus will be joining with their alumni for a reunion concert.
This sudden change in attitude toward the chorus’s alumni stems from a change of leadership in the group, which recently lost its musical director, Mark Bailey MUS ’89. Bailey had led the musical group for 21 years, but internal friction regarding alumni matters and musical style within the group forced his departure last year.
Stephan Sveshnikov ’18, who joined the group as a junior and was the only member with conducting experience, recently took over leadership of the group as the music director and, like many other members of the group, deemed it important to make contact with the alumni association. The problem, however, was that under Bailey, the group had held no concerts and had no contact with their alumni — so the group’s new leaders didn’t have a way to reach out to the alumni association.
“Because [Bailey] refused to leave, the old alumni base [was lost]. It had been very vigorous — we were the first western group to tour the Soviet Union— and very engaged, but in the 1990s there was this break, and so having taken over I said we need to engage our alumni again … and many of the people in chorus thought this was at least part of the goal of trying to push Bailey out,” said Sveshnikov.
“Bailey, for some bizarre reason, refused to let the alumni contact the current chorus … he sort of created his own alumni group,” said Connor Wood ’19, a member of the group.
In a bizarre twist, however, Wood ran into one of the alumni auditing an English class he was taking last spring. This provided a means by which to contact the alumni network. Sveshnikov and Wood, working with Harald Hille ’66 of the Yale Russian Chorus Alumni Association Board, began working on this Saturday’s concert, in an effort to bring the alumni and current students closer together.
As pleased as the two groups are to have finally gotten in touch with one another, the gap in communication means that the student organization has proceeded without much guidance from its alumni network, and has deviated stylistically from the Russian Chorus of old. Bailey’s ideas for what the chorus should be singing differed significantly from what the alumni thought the chorus should be singing.
“The thing about Bailey is he started here at the Institute of Sacred Music. He’s very much a proponent of period performance, he got rid of drinking during rehearsals, he got rid of yelling, and he got everyone on the proper pitches, is how he would describe the change — and so I think that sort of speaks volumes regarding what was important to him” said Adam Haliburton ’10 GRD ’21, who joined the group in 2006 as a freshman and is now a doctoral student at Yale.
Bill Teska DIV ’68 gives a very different view of the Russian Chorus: “Our approach to singing the music comes from three main sources, mainly the Don Cossacks … who had a particular style, though, very in your face and out there and shirt ripping.”
Bailey’s insistence on adherence to the traditional performance rather than the lively, fun loving aspects that the alumni enjoy also had negative effects on the group in terms of their prestige. A once well-known organization, the Russian Chorus began last year with only three members. However, the new leadership of the group seems eager to once again embrace the less serious side of the group, and hopefully gain more new members as a result. Part of the way they plan to do this is to engage more with the alumni association, which sings two concerts every year.
The group, founded in 1953 by Denis Mickiewicz ’57 GRD ’67 when he walked into the Russian Club with a guitar and a bottle of vodka, seems to be in a stage of great revival — recovering from the extreme seriousness of the Bailey years and rediscovering the fun in singing for the sake of singing. While the alumni and the group may, at the moment, be mostly unfamiliar with one another, both sides are eager to work together in the future. When I sat down for dinner with the group after rehearsal on Monday night with two alumni and six current members, the jokes and stories came fast and furious from all sides, and laughter abounded. If the group hopes to succeed and regain their reputation on campus, they will have to readopt many of the stylistic choices that made their predecessors the “bad boys of a cappella”, according to Teska. Now, with the alumni by their side, they’re perfectly equipped to do just that.
Contact Jake Kalodner at email@example.com .