Friday, May 01, 2009

About the concert at the 40th reunion of the Yale Slavic Chorus

It occurs to me I never wrote much about my trip to New Haven at the beginning of April to be part of this extravaganza and to enjoy whispering and being naughty with my daughter. The article below sort of says it. Here's one of the videos I sliced out of the recording I made (there are about twenty on YouTube):

Forty years of powerful harmony
by Carole Bass for the Yale Alumni Magazine

It was the fall of 1969, and Yale had just admitted its first female undergraduates. While the (male) president of the Glee Club helped organize The New Blue as a female counterpart to Yale's men's a cappella groups, a (male) member of the Russian Chorus envisioned an altogether different kind of singing group.

"Sing as if you’re bending over and pulling a frozen rutabaga out of the ground!" Celo V'ec '71 exhorted members of the newly formed Yale Slavic Chorus.

At a joyous reunion concert in April, some 75 past and present self-styled "Slavs" -- it's a brand, in this case, not necessarily an ethnicity -- celebrated nearly 40 years of bringing what one called "peasant women's music of the earth" to the stages, common rooms, and squash courts of a lofty Ivy League university.

By turns dreamlike and hymnlike, rousing and yearning, the songs from Bulgaria, Croatia, Ukraine, and elsewhere tell of love and loss, work and sleep, olive trees and orange trees -- and strong women. In one, a girl wins a singing contest with a nightingale. Another girl scolds her Turkish suitor: "I will not marry you." The harmonies are sweetly dissonant; the rhythms distinctive; the warbling, whooping vocal styles suited for unamplified outdoor singing.

"Men never sing this stuff. These were field workers," says V'ec, the founder and an invited guest to the April 3-5 reunion weekend.

On tour with the Russian Chorus in Bulgaria in the summer of 1968, V'ec (then known as William Robbins Jr.) came across a book of women's ethnic folk songs, he recalled while the Slavs rehearsed that Sunday morning. He bought it and, a year later -- with coeducation about to begin -- decided to organize a group to perform the songs. He learned to transliterate the Cyrillic and hand-wrote the music.

After the April 5 rehearsal, four decades of Slavs sat in a circle, sharing their names and stories. While names were all different, many of the early members' stories sounded -- well, like a chorus: "It saved me," one woman said of the singing group. "I was worried when I came, if I was going to be able to find my people here. And lo and behold -- my people!"

"When I arrived after 11 years of coeducation," said another, "Yale was still a really male-dominated place. The chorus was a haven."

A third woman said she heard the Slavic Chorus perform in Cambridge and thought, "'Oh my God, I've got to go to Yale, because it's full of these incredible women doing incredible things.' Little did I know the legacy of Yale."

The circle included three mother-daughter pairs of official Slavs, plus another member's 16-year-old daughter, who sang with the group. One of the pairs consisted of Merideth Wright '71, a founding member, and her daughter Sophia Emigh '06. As a transfer student, Wright had even fewer female peers than the freshmen that year. Yet she remembers the Slavic Chorus not so much as a women's haven as "just a soul-satisfying experience. It was an antidote to all the academics."

Sunday afternoon, with all the Slavs on stage at Battell Chapel, V'ec -- wispy, shoulder-length gray hair flying -- arose to lead the finale. The stirring, full-throated Bulgarian "Prekvrukna Ptichka" brought wide grins to even the most serious-looking choristers.


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