Melodies of friendship

[b]‘Friendship Trains’ were extremely popular in the 1990s. Ursula Heinecke, a music teacher from Wetzlar, in Germany, and Vladimir Popkovich, who headed the German Language Chair at Vitebsk’s Pedagogical Institute, met in one of them [/b]Later their families also became friends and they visited each other often. Some time later they decided to take their friendship to a higher level by selecting a music group from Vitebsk to come to Germany to perform a concert. Ursula Heinecke, who sang with the Kantorei Choir, attended a rehearsal of the recently founded Vitebsk Youth Choir, and greatly enjoyed the young and talented group. “Who would ever have thought that the encounter would lead to our first foreign trip and become the basis for almost 20 years of friendship?” asked Vitaly Rauzo, a choirmaster of Vitebsk’s City Youth Choir. Today, some of his pupils continue to sing or teach in Vitebsk, Minsk and St. Petersburg, as well as in Spain and Belgium. With his choir, he tours successfully all over Europe and wins awards at international contests.
‘Friendship Trains’ were extremely popular in the 1990s. Ursula Heinecke, a music teacher from Wetzlar, in Germany, and Vladimir Popkovich, who headed the German Language Chair at Vitebsk’s Pedagogical Institute, met in one of them

Later their families also became friends and they visited each other often. Some time later they decided to take their friendship to a higher level by selecting a music group from Vitebsk to come to Germany to perform a concert. Ursula Heinecke, who sang with the Kantorei Choir, attended a rehearsal of the recently founded Vitebsk Youth Choir, and greatly enjoyed the young and talented group. “Who would ever have thought that the encounter would lead to our first foreign trip and become the basis for almost 20 years of friendship?” asked Vitaly Rauzo, a choirmaster of Vitebsk’s City Youth Choir. Today, some of his pupils continue to sing or teach in Vitebsk, Minsk and St. Petersburg, as well as in Spain and Belgium. With his choir, he tours successfully all over Europe and wins awards at international contests.

Mr. Rauzo, you perform in Europe more often than in Belarus, don’t you?
During our first pre-Christmas concert in Wetzlar, which took place after long discussions and rehearsals, we were performing Bach’s oratorio. The German conductor couldn’t believe that 15-17 year old youngsters could sing this complex piece in German. However, the concert was a success. In Germany we lived with families and later the Germans came to our country on a return visit. We’ve been friends since that time and I recently visited Wetzlar to celebrate the retirement of their 65-year old conductor.

How did you get your passion for music?
Just like many boys, I had many interests in childhood. I was involved in artistic gymnastics and later shifted to speed skating. When I was 8-10 years old, my mother and I went on holiday to the Black Sea and I first saw an accordion in Batumi. I liked it so much that I asked my parents, who were not musical, to buy it for me. Because of my young age, they bought me a smaller instrument, which I practised on. At that time, there was only one music school in Vitebsk and it was almost impossible to enrol in it. At first, I took private lessons and I studied hard, easily picking up popular melodies. Just three years later, I joined the music school’s choir studio, where I spent five years playing the accordion.

Then you entered Vitebsk’s Music College. Is it true that you became the leader of a vocal and instrumental group, even before graduating from college?
Yes, it was an ensemble of the local Znamya Industrializatsii factory. They were all 2-3 years older than I was and they were not very keen on their new artistic leader, who was just a second year student at the music college. However, we all loved music and finally found a common language.

Did you play in the ensemble yourself?
There was a semi-professional ensemble at the city’s centre of culture — ‘Vitebskie Verasy’, where I played an electric organ. Interestingly, the father of Alexander Rybak, a ‘Eurovision-2009’ winner from Norway, played the violin in our ensemble. That was when I was noticed by Yuri Gryaznov — a famous figure in Belarusian culture. He worked as a choirmaster of a boys’ choir at one of Vitebsk’s schools. In 1973, he invited me to work with a girls’ choir.

However, you then replaced Yuri Gryaznov as chief conductor of Vitebsk’s mixed choir…
Mr. Gryaznov is a unique personality. In 1974, he organised the first choral holiday in Vitebsk, similar to the fashionable Baltic singing festivals. In 1980 or 1981, on the eve of one such holiday, Mr. Gryaznov began to behave strangely for some unknown reason and left the session of the City Executive Committee, the role of which was to consider important issues relating to culture. The leadership wasn’t going to investigate the reasons for his behaviour, but instead invited me to become the city’s chief conductor. Anyway, if it were not for the support of teachers and classmates from Minsk’s Conservatoire, where I studied by correspondence, I would have failed. At that time, I wasn’t even 30 years old…

Why are choral holidays less popular today than they used to be?
After the collapse of the USSR, choral music ‘crashed’ in all the former Soviet republics. Some time later, due to a revived interest in traditions as well as to significant financial support, it made a come-back in Latvia, where today they can put together a 19-thousand member choir. Another aspect of the decline of choral music was that classical music does not provide instant gratification in the way that pop music does. Audiences need time to appreciate classical music. People who have attended our spiritual music festivals — what used to be city choral festivals — have been converted. Some of them exclaim, one or two years after the event: ‘What a wonderful concert that was!’ It takes them that long to ‘digest’ what they have experienced and heard. That is a precious thing for good choral groups.

How can you explain the popularity of choral singing in Western Europe?
Usually professional choirs are invited to perform serious works in Belarus. There are only a few of them and they are very expensive. In Europe, people trust amateur groups more. There are 60,000 amateur choirs registered. However, they are ‘mixed’ with professionals before an important concert. Amateurs usually don’t aim to achieve great results and victories in contests. For them, choral music is primarily communication. An awards ceremony and a reception always follow the concert, with refreshments prepared by themselves, helping to save money. Pragmatic Europeans calculate everything. For example, when we were visiting Belgium, we paid for our hotel and meals out of the proceeds from our concerts. We were lucky because the tickets for our concerts sold well — people were interested in the fellow countrymen of Marc Chagall.

What are your choir’s latest achievements? What is your next goal?
Last autumn, the youth choir took part in recording a CD in Germany, where they performed Mendelssohn and Bach’s cantatas. We have recently returned from an international competition in Daugavpils, in Latvia. Out of fifty groups, we were the runners up, losing out only to a choir from Riga — the winners of the Grand Prix. My son Alexander was a conductor there. He is also a choirmaster and he graduated from the Belarusian State Academy of Music. In late April, we’re going to hold a joint concert with a choir from Latvia and, in June, we are expected in Germany for that country’s most prestigious contest. We plan to compete in the ‘mixed choirs’ and ‘folk music’ categories.

by Sergey Golesnik
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