Saturday, June 28, 2014

Eric Conway: Morgan State University Choir on Days 3 & 4 of Tour in Belarus

Eric Conway, D.M.A.:
Hello everyone from Belarus,
This tour is quite different than our other tours. Concerts are planned every evening, however, the early part of the day is always free. The only event planned on Wednesday (day 3) was a concert at a Baptist church in suburban Belarus - Church of Bethlehem. We had a very wonderful spiritual exchange with that Belarusian congregation who is one of the few Protestant churches in the country. The main religion in Belarus is Eastern Orthodoxy which is often called the Orthodox Catholic church. Protestantism is very young in this country which statistically has very few followers. Many Belarusians came out to hear and see how other persons in their faith worshipped and sang their music. There was a good crowd in the church, despite it being a workday evening (Wednesday). One of the highlights for the choir was hearing the congregation sing "Amazing Grace" to us in Russian. The pastor was very excited and proud to share his congregation's message in song to us. I always am amazed that "Amazing Grace" seems to be the first tune taught by missionaries to distant cultures. To hear this congregation sing, one could hear the sincerity of their spirit and conviction. They sure could sing! Please click on the link below to view a recording of this phenomenon. The Minsk Gospel choir attended this concert with their founding director Pasha. Their director asked if he could drop by our hotel the next morning to speak with the choir members and me about our Gospel music and to simply learn as much as he could from us. We gladly said join us for breakfast in the morning.
Facebook video of Bethlehem Church singing Amazing Grace:
This morning, Pasha the director of the Minsk Gospel choir was at our hotel at 9AM sharp as planned. We had a great conversation during breakfast about the challenges he had getting his choir started. Beyond not knowing the style of American Gospel music, and dealing with persons who were not musicians, they had the almighty language barrier, not knowing English. I was told by the American Embassy, that probably fewer people speak English in Belarus than all of Europe- one of the set-backs of living in a dictatorship. After breakfast, he offered to take the group for a sight-seeing stroll around the city. As this 9AM morning breakfast was still 2AM back home, everyone passed on the offer to walk around Minsk and go back to bed, however, I did not and found my time with Pasch very rewarding. I virtually had my own private guide. My guide happened to be a doctoral student in the conservatory in Minsk in Choral Conducting, who was a French horn player originally. He gave me great insight in to Belarusian culture. He first took me to the Catholic Church in Minsk where Pope John Paul from adjacent Poland visited quite frequently during his tenure. He then took me to several Orthodox churches with very beautiful sanctuaries with one conspicuous absentee item - chairs! He told me that when people come to worship in the Orthodox church, everyone stands with the exception of the elderly or disabled. He reflected as a child being an alter boy and having to stand for hours and hours during service.
We then went to a beautiful manmade island known for their wedding ceremonies which had very unique fountain - an angel whose eyes were always crying via the mechanism of a fountain - see attached movie clip. I thought that this was extraordinary and worth sharing with you, as you may never see anything like this again. Pasha then took me to his conservatory. He knew that tomorrow morning, I was going to give a lecture to his school about American Music. We then returned to our hotel, but not before giving me an opportunity to ride the Minsk subway system. What a very efficient system which is used by virtually everyone. I do not know if you can tell from the photos, but this has got to be one of the cleanest cities in the world. Or course government workers were always washing and cleaning the streets. I never saw any debris anywhere. This also may be because there is always the threat of the KGB looking over your shoulder, or I prefer to believe that perhaps because the people are very civically proud of their city. At the end of the day, Pasha and I said that we would stay connected as well as we could via Facebook.

Tonight we had our biggest concert in Minsk, and perhaps the biggest concert of the summer. We were to sing in Minsk's biggest classical music venue - the Philharmonic Hall!  The hall was small by American standards, but just right for European sensibilities of sound approximately 700 seats or so.  The seats were a beautiful emerald green, it reminded me of Oz.  The backdrop of the hall featured pipes to an enormous organ.  The hall had all the niceties of any professional hall in the states - stagehands and such.  I had my own dressing room with two grand pianos!  Chargé d'Affaires Goldrich was there to properly introduce the choir to the Minsk audience.  This was especially touching for him to be present, as this was his last day in Minsk as chief diplomatic officer.  

I was concerned that given the language obstacle, that the audience might not enjoy our music as well as others.  Well, I was wrong.  For a weeknight, the place was packed.  They were very enthusiastic in their applause throughout the night throwing out several Bravos!  This may have been a very erudite concert hall normally, but the Morgan State University choir rocked the house with everyone participating in the experience via their handclaps.  For the first time in my performing career, spontaneously, a person came up to me, not at the end of the performance, but the middle of concert to give me three long-stemmed roses.  The choir took several photos on stage as well as outside the venue to capture the moment.  Please also see the huge poster that draped the outside of the hall.  We knew that we had a big evening in Minsk.

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