Zaraysk


by Connor Wood

Today was one of the best days of my life. We woke up early in the morning to board a bus for a little town called Zaraysk, which is almost a thousand years old. It took over three hours to cross the fields and forests that separate Zaraysk from Moscow. When we arrived, the town felt frozen in time. A few of the buildings were wooden and clearly at least a century old; all were no younger than the Soviet period. After a very hospitable lunch, we got a tour of the city’s kremlin—a general term for an old town’s fortress, not just the famous one in Moscow. As I walked through the gate I was struck by how this run-down, beautiful old fortress was twice as old as my country. I wonder what it’s like to grow up surrounded by such ancient things: on one hand, I hope it gives people a sense of the vastness of history and of our small place in it, but on the other hand, it’s easy to get used to what you pass by every day. 

Climb ing up to the spring

After the kremlin we went a few minutes out of town to visit a sacred spring, whose waters flow naturally just above freezing temperature. I waited till the bathing room cleared out—I’m a very private person—and leapt in. The frigid water was a shock: I leapt back out and sputtered for a few minutes. But once my head had cleared, I felt like a new man. What a mystery this spring must have been to the people who discovered it centuries ago, not knowing how cold springs work—a constant flow of water so cold, it could have just melted from ice, even in the middle of summer! While I dried off I saw Agata, my friend in the first tenors, standing still amid the tall grass and wildflowers. She asked me to describe the crisp, floral smell in the air, and I was almost at a loss. 

We went back to the Palace of Culture, built by the Soviets in every town for shows and art, to rehearse and perform. Stepan, our conductor, encouraged us before we went on by reminding us that this was the first time that almost everyone in this audience would have heard Americans perform their own music, and exhorting the soloists to make this one really count. It took us a few numbers to hit our stride, but after the first few songs we were singing our hearts out. I had a solo in “Akh, ty step’”, a song about aching with longing for the vast, rolling Russian countryside. I’ve never seen the steppe, but I tried to channel my feeling for home in my beautiful state of Virginia, which I wasn’t able to visit for almost half a year until just before I left for tour. Between American spirituals, Orthodox sacred music, and Russian and Ukrainian folk songs, we brought the house down. I’ve never seen such an enthusiastic audience; our music spoke to them on a level that transcended borders and politics. A Gypsy rock band performed right after us, and most of the Yale choristers spent the duration of their set dancing backstage to their music, even me. I’ve never felt at ease on a dance floor, but somehow this trio of Gypsy rock artists—a violinist, a guitarist, and a beautiful dancer, all of whom also sang—opened me up, and by the end I was sweating so much I felt I could use another dip in the cold spring. 

After far too many rounds of applause and photos with the sweet folks who came to hear us, we went to dinner with the rock trio and got plastered. Barely ten minutes passed without a toast and an accompanying vodka shot. Our host spoke little English, so Stepan and Agata translated piecemeal. He gave us heartfelt thanks for coming so far to sing for his festival, and said that though his countrymen and we Yale Russian Choristers come from vastly different places, the same sun shines on us and the same grass grows under our feet, and music reminds us of that. Full of herring, pierozhki, and vodka, and worn out from a daylong trip, as the late northern sun was just setting below the line of the fields and trees, we got on the bus for the long ride home. 

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