Lowe

Can you spot Sam? He’s the only one in the photo with a beard!

The Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix is gearing up for its 93rd consecutive year. The chorus started in 1929 and is the oldest musical performing group in Arizona. I sang with the Orpheus off and on for 33 years and made several international tours with them. A concert on one of those trips stands out because it was so exceptional. It happened in Russia and lingers in my memory bank. 

I belive that every human being should be allowed at least one moment like this. A time when you stood a little taller. A time when all other accomplishments seemed trivial. A time of such magnitude that all the times that come after would never diminish its importance. This was one of those times.

Kronstadt is a Russian island in the Bay of Finland, a few miles north of St. Petersburg. The Russians connected it to the mainland by constructing a huge dike across the bay. For decades, the island served as a naval base, first for Russia, then for the Soviet Union.

When that empire collapsed shortly before our arrival, it reverted to Russia. All the changes and political manipulations made the base off-limits to tourists. Especially American tourists. But on this day, July 4, 1992, the Orpheus Male Chorus from Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A., arrived there to sing. With a U.S. Army band. On a Russian naval base.

Some of us got over the excitement of simply being there long enough to consider this: A few years ago, this situation would have been not only highly improbable but absolutely impossible. Even a year before, it would have been unthinkable. But there we were, all decked out in our performance outfits, ready to captivate Russians with our renditions of classic choral arrangements.

The original plan was to stage a joint concert featuring the Orpheus and the 23rd U.S. Army Band, a touring National Guard unit out of Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A. On a Russian naval base.

But officials said they wanted the Naval Admiralty Orchestra, a Russian band, to perform as well. They’d be backing up an American choral group and sharing the stage with an American band. Alfred Hitchcock should have been there, taking notes.

But the request by the naval base officers was not unreasonable. It was, after all, their naval base. And their island. Then, the performance schedule also underwent some major alterations. The Orpheus was originally supposed to be on stage for an hour, but due to the addition of the Russian band, they shortened our time to 45 minutes. Then to 30 minutes. Finally, those in charge said we had 20 minutes.

Twenty whole minutes to tunefully relate our well-rehearsed sagas of pickup trucks, broken hearts, girls named Peggy Sue and faithful hound dogs. Our director mentioned this, but the Russians made no concessions. It was their island et cetera, et cetera.

Initially, the Orpheus and the Army band were supposed to perform Wilhosky’s version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But once again, the Russians interceded and asked if their musicians might play along. A hard request to turn down, considering that this was their territory.

Next, there arose the problem of where to insert the number into the program. It was a weighty matter because it meant cramming 45 singers, 56 American musicians and 60 Russian band members onto a stage about the size of those found in small-town high schools. The decision was made to present the song after intermission, and there was no dissent from the Americans who, by this time, were fully aware that it was a Russian island.

And so the concert began. The Orpheus went on first and did 20 minutes of ballads. Once finished, we took seats in the audience to wait until after intermission, when we would regroup with the bands for “The Battle Hymn.” The Russian orchestra was supposed to be next, and the players gathered on the stage. But then the American musicians began filtering among the Russians, not in accordance with the oft-changed schedule.

Next, an interpreter stepped to the microphone and asked the Orpheus singers to gather in front of the stage. This was not even close to the plan and was met with great consternation because some singers were still in the restrooms. But, through the combination of good fortune and dumb luck, most of them got back in time.

All was quiet when Chief Warrant Officer Norman Wendel, director of the U.S. Army band, took his place on the podium (a folding table mounted between two chairs on the auditorium floor) and faced this hastily arranged and highly confused gathering of performers.   

For once, all eyes were riveted on the director. They showed anticipation. Or anxiety. Or fear.

Wendel thrust his baton into the air, and his gesture was answered by the roll of a snare drum and the blare of eight trumpets, some American, some Russian. The song began, and there were no nationalities. No Americans. No Russians. Just people, making a song come alive. People believing the words they were singing and the melody they were playing.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,    

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored...

We sang with emotion, and our voices were at full timbre, but the sound of the combined orchestras drowned out our words. It didn’t matter. Most of us were crying, anyway. Those who weren’t crying were afflicted with throat lumps. As the hymn ended, the applause began at the final crash of the cymbals and grew until it shook the hall and sustained itself through all the bows and handshakes and hugs that are duty-bound to follow such a magnificent performance.   

It was over then. Too soon. We had shared a moment none of us would ever forget. After that day, we all stood a little taller. 

– A former Valley newspaperman who now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.