Musical snapshot from 1958: A group of men stand on a summer street corner, singing a capella, drawing an amazed and delighted crowd. If that image conjures thoughts of streetcorner doo-wop groups like the Orioles or Skyliners doing their thing on the streets of Brooklyn or Harlem, think again: This particular snapshot was taken on a streetcorner in Moscow, in the depths of the Cold War, of a band of visiting college boys who were still discovering the joys of a musical tradition that had nothing to do with hot rods, mean parents or teenagers in love.
These streetcorner serenaders were the Yale Russian Chorus (YRC), a group of male singers that had formed a few years before. On its first foray that summer’s day into what was then a very foreign, outwardly hostile land, the 20-o- so young shirted-tied-and-blazered choristers wandered the streets, bringing unheard-of American gospel music to such places as Moscow’s Pushkin Square while also stunning audiences of passersby with their renditions of Russian religious and secular music. The music would draw audiences of as many as 1,000 people.
Though that memory is nearly 60 years old, it still burns brightly in the words of Kingston’s Ernst Schoen-Rene, who was a member of the chorus then and who remains so today. He and many of the men with whom he sang back then – members of the Yale Russian Chorus Alumni – will join the Bard College Georgian Choir in an evening of a capella Russian and Georgian music at Olin Hall on the Bard campus on March 11.
Schoen-Rene grew up in Geneva, New York and came to Yale suffering from what he calls a poor education. Between Yale and his adventures in the YRC, he improved his education enough to enjoy a long career as a professor of English at California State College at Chico. He and his wife Betty now live in Kingston.
Perhaps you need to have lived through the Cold War to realize how remarkable it was for Russians to stumble upon a band of American singers in downtown Moscow. These were bellicose years; the world’s two great emergent superpowers were militarily and politically at each other’s throat. The USSR had recently exploded a nuclear bomb – a fact that threatened, in American and Russian eyes, to turn the Cold War into a terminally hot one.
Schoen-Rene remembers a grim and dreary environment filled with people who, by design, knew little or nothing about America, but were eager to learn. It was also a place, he said, where Russians and members of the USSR’s satellite countries were mad to hear the Georgian songs that the group specialized in performing. “It was tremendously exciting,” he recalls. “And it was dangerous. Every now and then, someone would rise out of the crowd and curse us out. But the crowd had a way of producing this sort of zigzag motion that wound up pushing him to the middle and then the back of the crowd.”
People would buttonhole the Americans after a performance and ask such questions as how many hours did a person have to work to buy a pair of shoes in America? And did he really have a refrigerator back home? Those and many other questions would often be asked and answered during vodka-fueled parties, where the political walls that stood between the two nations crumbled and fell amid and story and song.
The YRC’s goodwill visits to the USSR continued throughout the years, as the club’s membership became alumni. No less an authority on Russian music than Soviet and Russian grandmaster cellist Mstislav Rostropovich has praised the group’s many tours. He thanked the group at the time of its 50th anniversary for its “work in propagating the wonderful choral music of Russia and for [its] idea of achieving understanding between our people through music.”
The two countries have seen new walls fall and rise in the intervening years. The Soviet Union itself no longer exists. Russia’s political motives and activities are again on every Western radar and computer screen. But one aspect has remained constant throughout the decades of suspicion and turmoil: the belief, which Schoen-Rene shares with his fellow choristers, that music bridges every wall.
The Yale Russian Chorus Alumni have witnessed and participated in the history of the two countries. They will perform with the Bard College Georgian Choir, whose members are students who have yet to make their mark on history. The two groups will spend three days together in rehearsal. Expect the culmination of that generational and cultural exchange to provide a night full of soaring musical bridges, high enough to surmount any wall.
The concert will be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 11 at Olin Hall. Admission is free, though there’s a suggested donation of $10, $5 for Bard students.