Courtesy of the Yale Russian Chorus

This Saturday, the Yale Russian Chorus will participate in a virtual symposium alongside YRC alumni and the Kartuli Ensemble, a group that performs Georgian music.

The ensemble’s recorded performance is part of the 10th Anniversary International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony, a Georgian music symposium hosted in Tbilisi, Georgia. The symposium will feature Georgian music performances from choral groups all around the world. The YRC and its alumni will perform the chant “Shen Khar Venakhi” — which translates to “You are a Vineyard” — alongside the Kartuli Ensemble.

“Shortly after the pandemic hit, we saw that it was not going to be possible to do live performances anymore,” said Lewis Johnson GRD ’85, a member of the YRC Alumni Association Board of Directors. “So, virtual chorus recordings looked like a good way for the group to keep singing and produce recordings we could use to engage with a global audience.”

YRC members have a special history with “Shen Khar Venakhi,” the song they chose to perform at the symposium. Johnson said that many YRC members sing this song together at their weddings. It is also the first Gerogian song YRC ever learned.

According to Johnson, the Russian chorus was exposed to Georgian music by “kind of an accident.” When the group was on tour in Budapest in 1968, they “stumbled upon” a Georgian chorus practicing in their hotel.

“Next thing we knew, we were all invited to join in, and the director of the chorus offered to teach us some Georgian songs,” Johnson said. “So this kind of brings us full circle in a way, to present this song back in Georgia after all these years.”

YRC President Andrew Scott ’23 explained that when the Soviet Union banned most liturgical music from being sung, “Shen Khar Venakhi” could still be sung because it does not reference any religious figures by name. Because of this, it became an essential part of the YRC’s repertoire and was often sung on tours YRC took in the Soviet Union.

“While liturgical music is no longer banned in the former Soviet republics, we still sing this song for its beauty and use as a symbol of resistance,” Scott said.

The YRC typically holds its alumni concert in October and goes on tour in the winter or spring. The group initially planned to tour Russia this past summer, but the pandemic rendered that impossible.

Still, Johnson said the lockdown led to a number of benefits. For example, he organized a workshop led by Carl Linich, a member of the Kartuli ensemble who directed the virtual performance. In the workshop, YRC members and alumni practiced pronunciation and improved their understanding of the piece. 

Another benefit was that because singers did not have to be in the same physical room, alumni from across the world could participate. For the final product, an editor compiled recordings of the singers’ individual performance into one video. 

The YRC’s Alumni Association is also independently active and conducts its own tours. During the pandemic, they recorded virtual performances of the Slavonic chant “Blagoslovi Dushe Moya Gospoda” and the marching song “Borodino.”

Scott said that the YRC is very close with its alumni network. 

“Alumni of all ages love to interact with us, sing with us and tell us stories of rowdy concerts and gatherings dating back to the chorus’ founding in 1953,” said Scott. “Those interactions are one of my favorite parts of being a chorus member.”

The YRC was founded in 1953 at the start of the Cold War. It has been working to foster cultural connections between Russia and the United States ever since. In 1958, the YRC was the first American ensemble to perform in the Soviet Union on a private initiative.

“In Russia, they were trying to show that America was a place of religious freedom and political freedom and tolerance,” said Stephan Sveshnikov ’18, president of the YRC Alumni Association. “Coming back [to the United States], they were trying to show a slightly less negative picture of Russia and the Soviet bloc.”

Sveshnikov added that in touring Russia in recent years, the YRC has discovered the value of bridging gaps between cultures even without sharing a language and the power of music to strengthen connections.

This performance also serves as a stepping stone for the YRC’s future goals, which include putting together a Slavic and Eastern European choral festival to commemorate their 70th anniversary in 2023. YRC plans to invite other choruses from the symposium to perform live or submit a recorded performance.

“The virtual world is great in that respect, because it allows you to ignore geographical boundaries,” Sveshnikov said. “What I would really hope is that this is the beginning of a collaboration that will span many years. And then, years from now, still having that connection, maybe we’ll make it a priority to go to Georgia again.”

The YRC has performed at the White House and the Russian Consulate.

Marisol Carty | marisol.carty@yale.edu