The Washington alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, at the Jack Rasmussen Gallery, 313 G. St. NW. The evening, sponsored by Amnesty International, is dedicated to human rights in the Soviet Union. Although the evening is open to the public, a donation of $8 is required.

The Yale Russian Chorus alumni are indeed a rare assemblage, spanning nearly three decades of six continents.

But the name may cause you to ask, "When did an entire Cossack chorus defect to New Haven?"


Members and alumni of the chorus are all Americans and the university's group was born on impulse in 1954. That year, the dynamic founder, Denis Mickiewicz, was a Yale freshman enjoying his first year in the United States. Mickiewicz is from Latvia and arrived in America after an intermediate stop -- that lasted 15 years -- in Austria.

"A professor from Latvia asked me to give 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 Michiewicz, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Emory University.

Every year since, about 30 Yale undergraduates carry on as the official Russian Chorus. More importantly, the spirit of those undergraduate years has sparked the formation of alumni groups that gather informally to sing the unchanging lyrics (in Russian) and to join the current Russian Chorus whenever it comes to town.

In Washington, about 20 former chorus members are the only alumni group in the world to gather periodically and perform as a professional chorus.

"The chorus has defintely influenced my life probably more than any other single factor," says District resident Nick Danforth, a designer of education projects for Westinghouse Health Systems who frequently travels to Africa and Asia.

Danforth says that influence struck to him after a trip to the Soviet Union he made with the chorus in 1962.

"When you're told all your life that Russia is the enemy and then suddenly find out it's as interesting and as beautiful as the Russian culture is, well, it changes your whole life," he said. "I've never been the same since."

Since the centuries-old songs never change, the concerts don't vary much either, and most alumni say it takes little time to get back in the swing.

The Washington alumni have sung at parties in the area, at an exhibit of Impressionist paintings from the Soviet Union shown at the National Gallery of Art in 1973, and at the Capitol Presbyterian Church earlier this month.

Last spring, politics struck a heavy blow to the Washington group when it was scheduled to perform at the opening of the Hermitage Collection from Leningrad. The opening and the performance were conceled because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

However, the rhythmic, melodic shouts of old folk songs and the delicate harmonies of liturgical pieces will be heard this weekend at a benefit for Amnesty International in the District.And some alumni hope the concert will be the start of bigger things.

"We're talking about performing more as a professional group in the future," said alumni chorus member John Agosta.

If so, Washington is in for some lively times.