The West Meets the East Tour (1990) – memories of a choir member

Reading Phoenix Choir receives standing ovation at the Voronezh Opera House, Russia

 

Hi everyone

It was brought to my attention a few weeks ago that it has been 30 years since Phoenix went on their tour of Finland and Russia. Choir has been very fortunate in venturing on many tours of this country and abroad – Holland, Germany, Austria, France, Majorca, the Czech Republic, Ireland, California and – most recently – Spain; singing in wonderful cathedrals such as Palma (my debut as the pitch piper) and Salamanca, (who will forget the long queue of people waiting to come to our concert?), St Florians where Bruckner was organist and the Voronezh Opera House, have been my highlights.

Visiting Russia in 1990 will always be a special memory for me and very close to my heart. The previous year a mixed voice choir, the Voronezh Chamber Choir had been hosted by Phoenix.  Ron (my husband) and I had two sopranos staying with us. Tanya Sirotina was one of them and as a result a close friendship was born. She ended up moving to the UK and her eldest daughter Maria is my goddaughter. Choir was fortunate at the time as our chairman, Mike Ananin, had Russian parents and he was a fluent Russian speaker so when we were invited to visit Voronezh the following year, we jumped at the opportunity. Mike also had links with the Kilven Kuoro choir in Finland and so on the 12th April we flew to Helsinki before travelling by train to Moscow. On Good Friday (13th), I remember singing in a church which was part of the Kremlin; Ron nearly got arrested for taking photographs whilst we were singing. The following day we performed in the Glinka

Museum and that evening we returned to the Vauxhall station to catch the overnight train to Voronezh – a twelve-hour journey. This was a sleeper train with a samovar in which to boil water to make tea in each carriage. Woken in the middle of the night the train had stopped; it sounded like we had somehow been transported into China. However, by morning we were in Voronezh, placed in an interesting hotel – a health & safety nightmare – and being introduced to the musical talent of Voronezh. Who will forget the balalaika players and the eleven-year-old girl playing the red grand piano? We were then filmed singing Moon River for a local Russian television station before the highlight of the entire tour – singing in Voronezh Opera House. What a magnificent building and a memorable evening consisting of over a thousand people standing and cheering our singing and being presented with flowers (all of us!) and pictures. Everyone was so generous. Some members were given paintings, Ron and I, a samovar, teapot, and vodka glasses. The audience were so pleased to see us in their country as they had had very few visitors from the West and this was the year before Boris Yeltsin made his famous speech from the top of a tank outside the Russian Parliament building and the rapid decline of the Soviet Union. (As an aside, a few choir members returned to Russia the following year and were caught up in that event.) From there we went to St Petersburg and performed at the Capella Hall before being transported by bus back to Helsinki for two days of concerts, partying, saunas and, for the brave, swimming in the Baltic Sea.

That is a very brief reminisce of a wonderful 10 days of the ‘West meets the East’ and I’m sure those of us that went have many anecdotes about our trip. A few more of mine are meeting Father Vasily and his enormous capacity to drink copious amounts of vodka; consuming large quantities of cucumber, borscht (soup) and dumplings, old women sweeping the streets, empty shops and visually striking statues commemorating World War II.

Recently, Phoenix has had an exhibition in Reading Museum celebrating 50 years of the choir and some of my Russian memorabilia is in that, including the samovar. We had a brief encounter with Voronezh again in 2016 when the Voronezh Male Voice Choir joined us for a few days. They presented us with a beautiful plate which is also in the display. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 the museum had to close and therefore the exhibition has been locked away to the world. However, we have put the display online and you can view it here. Didier Garçon has also made all his archive material available on Reading Phoenix Memorabilia website and in the section Tour Videos there is a 3 hour account of that trip. His advice, however, is to watch it in its original YouTube location where it will be easier to watch tiny snippets.

In this strange time of lockdown and isolation perhaps it would be an ideal opportunity to look out old photos, memorabilia etc. We would love to hear from you about your memories of tours, not just Russia, concerts and competitions. Please get in touch with your memories via the contact us page of our website, or by emailing chair@readingphoenixchoir.com.

In the last few weeks, there have been a number of performances posted on FaceBook reminding me of the joy of singing with Phoenix. Firstly, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Arumque, sung whilst on our tour of Spain in 2018, then David Crown posted our rendition of Elgar’s Shower at Reading Town Hall in 2012 and Rosalie Gjerde, our wonderful and supportive friend from California, searched out our performance of the Rhythm of Life at the Cork International Festival in 1995 when we won first prize. The trophy is in our exhibition.

I am sure that many of you will remember Mac Akers who was a founder member of the choir and its first chairman. I was so sad to hear that he passed away on Saturday 9th May, having been unwell for some time. He was in the choir until 1985 and re-joined in 1993 to lead the choir’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. He was a big part of the choir during his times as a member and it was at Reading Phoenix Choir that he met his wife, Sally-Ann. There will be a further tribute to Mac at a later date that I will share with you. If you would like to make a charitable donation in memory of Mac, donations to the Alzheimer’s Society can be made here.

My lovely friend, Sophie, asked me the other night what I was missing about the lockdown. There are many things that I am enjoying although I do appear to be as busy as ever. Virtual teaching via Zoom has made sure of that. However more than anything I’m missing meeting my friends on a Monday evening, singing together and performing. We should have been in Bath for the first weekend in May. We are rehearsing once a week in sections using Zoom and participating in the ever increasingly popular quiz evenings. But it’s not the same. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we can all sing together again and perhaps see you in either our audiences or at our annual Come and Sing.

Keep safe everyone. Love and best wishes,

Gill Leishman

 

Visit our virtual museum to find out more about the choir’s tours.