Courtesy of Yale Russian Chorus

In 1953, amid the tensions of the Cold War, George Litton ’56 of Yale’s Russian Club invited School of Music student Denis Mickiewicz MUS ’57 to speak at a meeting about Russian music traditions. In lieu of a traditional lecture, Mickiewicz arrived equipped with a guitar and two bottles of vodka. According to a Wall Street Journal article published in 2003, Mickiewicz simply said, “It’s better to sing than to talk.” Hence, the Yale Russian Chorus was established.

According to Raymond Gao ’21, this is the apocryphal tale of the chorus’ origin. But this story of communal intonation and inebriation also appears in the Yale Russian Chorus’ official history. 2018 marks the 65th anniversary of the chorus’ inception, and this year, the group will hold an “Anniversary Concert” on Sunday, October 14, at 2:00 p.m in Woolsey Hall.

The Yale Russian Chorus hosts anniversary concerts every year. This year the concert will include over 100 alumni singers, and seven different conductors — Dan Gsovski ’64, John Stewart ’62, Alex Kuzuma ’77, David Finley MUS ’84, Stephan Sveshnikov ’18, Brooks Chupp ’19 and co-founder Denis Mickiewicz MUS ’57 GRD ’58 ’67.

Mickiewicz’s appearance as guest conductor makes this performance particularly special. According to Harald Hille ’66 GRD ’70, the president of the Yale Russian Chorus Alumni Association, the ensemble has not hosted Mickiewicz as a guest conductor since its 60th Anniversary Concert in 2013, and because Mickiewicz is 89 years old, Sunday’s performance could be one of his last appearances on Woolsey Hall stage.

The concert follows a period of little interaction between the on-campus chorus and its alumni.

“For about 20 years, there was a certain estrangement between the alumni and the chorus at Yale,” Hille said. “We found that we no longer could come back, because the chorus was suddenly singing different music, and that hadn’t been the case in all of the reunions before that — we used to come back and be able to sing 80 or 90 percent of the songs.”

According to Hille, these tensions began to dissipate about two or three years ago when the student chorus reached out to alumni in an attempt to collaborate. They learned more of the chorus’ traditional repertoire, and the alumni joined the student chorus for their first joint concert in Battell Chapel last fall.

“This time, they’ll be singing with us the whole time that we’ll be singing,” Hille said. “One of the great advantages of that, is they can now become alumni and sing with us in alumni concerts, and fit right in musically. For 20 years, we did not receive any new singers, and were sort of becoming musical dinosaurs.”

Hille highlighted the nostalgia of returning to Yale to sing. In his words, it felt like making “the soufflé rise again.”

Participation in the alumni association may soon rise due to growth in the membership of the current student chorus.

“This term, the on-campus chorus is the largest it’s been in years,” said Connor Wood ’19, the president of the Yale Russian Chorus. “I’m so excited for the new singers to meet our alumni, who have great stories to tell and decades of experience to pass on.”

The alumni are headed back to campus this week, and although the current Yale Russian Chorus has not had the opportunity to rehearse with the alumni, all of the guest conductors have led rehearsals.

Sunday’s performance will focus on the Yale Russian Chorus’ traditional repertoire.

“Our repertoire will span everything from Tchaikovsky to Lyube, a popular Russian rock band, and will incorporate Russian and Ukrainian songs, as well as music set to texts written in Old Church Slavonic,” said Ladislav Charouz ’19, the Yale Russian Chorus’ business manager. “Another thing to look forward to is a guest appearance by the Yale Slavic Chorus.”

The concert is co-sponsored by Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, although according to members of the chorus, there are no institute musicians performing in the concert. The institute does not maintain an ongoing partnership with the chorus, but chose to co-sponsor Sunday’s performance due to the importance of the anniversary.

Admission to the concert is free.

Rianna Turner  |