Yale Russian Choir celebrates 70-year reunion performance
Seven decades of Yale Russian Choir members came together for a performance celebrating Slavic choral tradition.
Cody Skinner, Contributing Photographer
The walls of Woolsey Hall resounded with ethereal melodies and harmonious echoes as the Yale Russian Choir celebrated its 70-year reunion performance, a testament to the enduring power of music, peace advocacy and cultural exchange.
Established in 1953 by Denis Mickiewicz MUS ’57 GRD ’58 ’67, the Yale Russian Choir proudly holds the distinction of being the oldest Slavic singing group in the Western Hemisphere. On Sept. 9, alumni members from all over the world, representing the ensemble’s seven decades of existence, joined in Woolsey Hall to perform nearly 20 arrangements from the choir’s history, including the debut of Anton Viskov’s “Alleluia,” a composition dedicated to the YRC.
This milestone marked a night filled with nostalgia, camaraderie and a repertoire of choral music spanning the history and traditions of Eastern Europe.
“Among the people assembled tonight, we’re guessing ages 19 to 90, are people who flew in from the West Coast of the United States, Canada and from Europe,” said Benjamin Rifkin ’83, president of the Yale Russian Chorus Alumni Association. “We’ve been preparing with all kinds of individual work.”
Rifkin said that another YRC Alumni Association board member, Lewis Johnson GRD ’85, worked with many members of the chorus to assemble two volumes of music with vocal scores in original languages — including Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian — as well as translations. Rifkind called the process a “tremendous experience.”
The evening began with a warm welcome from Rifkin, who paid tribute to the choir’s rich history and the hours of dedication of members past and present that have kept it alive. He expressed his appreciation for the diverse age groups present, a departure from typical Yale class reunions, where attendees are often of similar ages.
“We have a huge repertoire but once we narrowed down who was coming, our conductors got together and picked some of their favorite pieces,” said Stephan Sveshnikov ’18 GRD ’28, assistant conductor of the chorus and second-year doctoral student.
The Russian Chorus is principally devoted to promoting peace and multicultural understanding, as reflected in the anniversary’s program. In response to the war Russia is waging against Ukraine, the chorus refrained from performing any Russian military music.
“We opened our concert tonight with a Te Deum by a Ukrainian composer,” Rikfin said. “We will have three pieces — ‘Oy, na hori,’ ‘Zirvalas’a khurtovyna,’ ‘Vyotsa, vyotsa s’izy dym (The Blue Smoke Curls)’ — to Ukraine, of Ukraine and about the losses in this horrible war,”
The Russian conflict, on top of years of COVID-19 precautions, has prevented the choir from going on international trips in recent years — a departure from the group’s tradition. Historically, the YRC has traveled all over Eastern Europe and Russia to perform, even during the Cold War.
Since 2019, the group has not been to Russia or Ukraine and has toured only domestically.
Throughout the evening, both religious and secular music filled the air, conveying tales of reunions in the snow, plights of serfs and prisoners, prayer and the occupations of foreign powers. “Zirvalas’a khurtovyna,” for instance, narrates a poignant dialogue between a mother and son as the son leaves for war. The mother reassures the son that it would not be shameful if he does not return.
Russian Chorus Director Gabriel Mesa ’22 began his time with the Russian Chorus as a first year. Despite lacking prior experience with the Russian language, Mesa’s enthusiasm for the chorus led him to learn the language and study its history during his time at Yale. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in history alongside Sveshnikov.
As the evening drew to a close, all Russian choir members were invited to the stage for the program’s final official song, “Mnogaya Leta (Many Years).” However, thunderous cheers brought forth an encore of “Kalinka,” affectionately introduced as “a little-known Russian folk song,” which inspired further cheering and clapping as the night came to a close.
“Whenever we have our five-year anniversary concert like this we have a banquet. At the banquet last night we were singing with one another! This is our brother and sisterhood. It connects us on a very deep level. I, as an alum, am more connected to Yale through this music and these people than anything else,” Rifkin told the News.
Following the performance, members of the group headed to the St. Thomas More Chapel to celebrate with a banquet.
The group is currently accepting new members. Contact Ilan Eisenberg ’25 to be part of 70 years of Slavic choral tradition.
In 1994, the chorus performed in the White House for Bill Clinton LAW ’73.