The Yale Russian Chorus alumni are a rare assemblage of dedicated friends, even in a town where college alumni organizations are as plentiful as people who won't admit they supported Richard Nixon.
The name might raise the question, "when did such a chorus defect to New Haven?" Never.
Members and alumni of the chorus are all Americans and the university's group was born, like many inspired ideas, on impulse one day back in 1954. It was then that the group's dynamic founder, Denis Mickiewicz, was a quiet, unssuming freshman at Yale. He was enjoying his first year in the United States after living in Austria since 1939 when he emigrated from his homeland of Latvia.
"A professor from Latvia asked me togive a lecture on Russian music to the Russian Club and I thought it would appeal to the boys if they sang the music themselves," explains Mickiewicz, now a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Emory University in Atlanta.
Now that the chorus is 27 years old and hundreds of alumni richer, its spirit is perpetuated worldwide by local alumni organizations that gather periodically to sing the unchanging lyrics, in Russian, and to join the college's present chorus whenever it come to town.
Of the alumni scattered over six continents (the chorus member who was stationed in the Antarctica left there two years ago), the Washington area group is the only one that performs as an alumni organization.
Its approximately 20 members have chosen careers as diverse as the repetoire they enthusiastically chant. Yet all share a common love for the rich folk and liturgical music, a respect for the culture of Russia, an understanding of its people, but most of all an unyielding allegiance to the camaraderie that lies deep in the hearts of those who have sung with it.
"The chorus has defintely influenced my life, probably more than any other single factor," said Nick Danforth, a designer of education projects for Westinghouse Health Systems who frequently travels to Africa and Asia.
Danforth remembers the impact of his trip to the Soviet Union with the chorus in 1962.
"When you're told all your life that Russia is the enemy and then suddenly find out it's interesting and beautiful as the Russian culture is, well, it changes your whole life, I've never been the same since," explained Danforth.
Rev. John Boyles, a 41-year-old Presbyterian minister and former pastor of the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, describes the alumni faith in more realistic terms.
"Anyone who's an alumni sort of stays with the group because they're always allowed to sing with the chorus whenever it performs . . . it's not like you're in or out. You're a member you're always a member," explained Boyles.
Since the centuries-old songs never change, the concerts don't vary much either. Boyles' explanation was epitomized by the 25th anniversary concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1978.
Of the 125 who attended the long-awaited reunion, 30 were members of the university chorus at the time. Nearly all the Washington alumni attended, four others flew in from London, four or more came from California and others came exclusively for the concert from Alaska, Sweden and Africa, not to mention from the remainder of the United States.
To prove the chorus attracts a wide range of people one need only look at the alumni who live in all corners of the Washington metropolitan area.
John Shattuck, 37, heads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. John Agosta, 26, is an environmental scientist at the EPA. Stephen Greene, 28, is a free-lance writer. John Zucker, 25, and Mike Mobbs, 32, are both lawyers with Washington law firms.
The list goes on: Gnnar Knapp is an economist for Resources for the Future, Bill Cline is an economist with Brookings Institute, Mark Brown works at a Russian bookstore in Rockville and sings with the Paul Hill Chorale, and Bill Watson is an executive secretary for Appropriate Technology International.
The alumni singers have performed at parties in the area, at an exhibit of Impressionist paintings from the Soviet Union shown at the National Gallery of Art in 1973, at Boyles' son's christening in May of 1980 and at the Capitol Presbyterian Church earlier this month.
Last spring politics struck a heavy blow to the group when it was scheduled to perform at the opening of an exhibit from the Hermitage of Lenningrad. The event was cancelled because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
However, the rhythmic, melodic shouts and the delicate harmonies will once again be heard when the alumni chorus performs at Amnesty International's evening dedicated to human rights in the Soviet Union this Saturday at 8 p.m., at the Jack Rasmussen Gallery.
Robert Drinan, former congressman from Massachusetts and Soviet dissidents will be guests. The gallery is located at 313 G Street, NW.
Saturday's concert may be the beginning of more to come.
"We're talking about performing as a professional group in the future," Agosta speculated.
If this is true, Washington is in for some lively times.