Russian Christmas Music – January 16, 1971

By Scott Westerman
“Music,” wrote Longfellow, “Is the universal language of mankind.” On a winter’s night in 1971, we spoke that language as one spiritual entity. We dropped our shields and revealed our best, most authentic selves. And for a few moments in time, fear, uncertainty and doubt fell away as music transformed us into best people we could ever hope to be.

“All of the resources of the modern symphonic band are drawn upon to create an almost overwhelming sound picture of tone color, power, and sonority.”

These are the words that composer Alfred Reed wrote to describe his masterpiece, “Russian Christmas Music”. He wrote it in the throws of the Second World War, in a mere 16 days, for a concert designed to improve Soviet / American relations. It had its premiere on December 12, 1944 in Denver, Colorado, manifested by an aggregated group of musicians from 5 different military bands. The piece was revised and expanded two years later, winning the 1947 Columbia University prize for new serious music for symphonic band.

24 years after it’s debut, I stood amidst the percussion section as the Ann Arbor Pioneer Symphony Band was about to perform Russian Christmas Music at Hill Auditorium.

If you were a young musician headed to Ann Arbor Pioneer High School at the dawn of the 1970s, you covetted a seat in the Symphony Band. Victor Bordo, the director, was already legendary. He drew superlative performances out of adolescent souls, often above and beyond anything we dreamt we might be capable of. Competition was fierce and each of us was determined to make the grade.

We worked hard. Very hard. The music he put before us required total concentration. And if you lost it for a nano-second, Vic always seemed to sense it. His gift for teaching, iron discipline and dedication to excellence stretched us beyond good and into the realm of great, taking us to the pinnacle of the musical experience.

This is something that non-musicians can never understand. There is no feeling on earth like being in the middle of one hundred people, expressing a composer’s brilliance in a large concert hall, before a capacity crowd.

A quarter century after Russian Christmas Music was first premiered, relations with the Soviet Union were still ice cold. Christmas was something one did not celebrate in the depths of state sponsored atheism. Reed, in his own way, intended to prove the existence of the almighty, weaving a liturgical tapestry echoing the acapella harmonies of the Eastern Orthodox Church into a symphonic showcase for winds. The melodies were not familiar. But the aura was mystical. You were immersed in transcendent majesty and knew exactly what occasion was being celebrated.

The evening had already proven to be a success. We played well and each selection was greeted with enthusiasm. But only the few who were aware of Alfred Reed’s magic knew that the best was yet to come.

With the rest of the program complete, Victor Bordo stood on the Hill Auditorium podium to lead our interpretation.

“Music acts like a magic key to which the most tightly closed heart opens,” said Maria VonTrapp of Sound of Music Fame. And like the most effective expressions of love, it is most powerful when experienced live. The best digital recordings and the most expensive sound systems can never render the emotional nuances transmitted as you watch musicians become one with the music.

Now imagine standing at the center of it all, the experience flowing over you, through you, touching every passionate fiber of your being. Like Zen masters of old, it was possible to leap beyond the reflexive mechanics of performance, to an entirely new level of consciousness.

Such were the sensations dancing through my being that winter’s evening as we began. Chimes called the congregation to worship. The woodwinds sang the “Carol of the Little Russian Children”. Trombones and trumpets intoned the “Antiphonal Chant”, building in power and frenzy to a percussive splash, punctuated by cymbals and gong.  Chuck Perraut’s visceral Cor angelis alto saxophone moaned a lonely “Village Song”.

And then came the finale, the “Cathedral Chorus”. A carillon heralding the invisible angels we knew must be surrounding us. Thunderous, climatic waves of sound engulfed every cavernous corner of Hill Auditorium, with french horns lifting their bells upward for maximum counterpoint effect. As the final note echoed across the balconies, the audience reaction was instantaneous, immense and appreciative.

Every one of us knew we had just experienced a life changing moment.

Victor Bordo smiled, stood to the side of the ensemble, and with a single upturned palm brought us to our feet to accept the adulation.

The comfort of knowing that you are good at something is a superpower that should arm every young person as they navigate the labyrinth of adolescence. To paraphrase Thoreau, “When we played music, we felt no danger. We were invulnerable. We saw no foe.”

Music gave me the confidence to push beyond the edges of my comfort zone, to try, fail, and try again. And it taught me to look for superpowers in others. With the seasoning of the years, I’ve discovered that every human being has a gift. Our job is to seek it out, nourish and develop it in our fellow travelers, nurturing the slippery self esteem that surrounds it.

44 years later, as I listen once again to the Pioneer Symphony Band performing “Russian Christmas Music” the things I saw, heard and felt during my high school experience come rushing back; the precarious existence of an evolving being, the roller coaster of emotions, and the constant search for acceptance and purpose that is ultimately a lifelong journey.