This was it. Show time … in Russia.
The Wayland Baptist University band members took a deep breath as they gathered their instruments and made their way toward the stage. This was something new. After all, they had never performed before a packed Russian crowd during the country’s biggest holiday.
As they made their way toward the stage, the band members barely noticed the three teenage girls who zipped past them after finishing their performance. They set up and began to play. From the first note it was obvious the enthusiastic Russian crowd was anxious to hear what this band from America had to offer.
The concert went off without a hitch as the band was encouraged to play several encore pieces while the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
Back at the motel, the excitement had not worn yet worn off as a Wayland faculty member turned on his television set. There, on what is Russia’s equivalent to MTV, were the three teenage girls who had preceded the band on stage. In that moment, reality of the enormity of the band’s trip began to set it.
“We were like rock stars to them,” said Jared McCarthick, a senior music education major from Lovington, N.M. “They were totally amazed at what we were doing.”
The Pioneer Band spent eight days in Russia earlier this month performing indoor and outdoor concerts in conjunction with the country’s Victory Day celebrations. The band spent four days in Moscow and four in St. Petersburg, performing in three of Europe’s top concert halls, including the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky Conservatory and the Capella Concert Hall in St. Petersburg.
The band’s packed schedule found them in Gorky Park on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, celebrating the end of the World War II.
“We were the group that performed on either side of the minute of silence that they observe,” Wayland band director Tim Kelley said.
“We were playing and halfway through Mr. Kelley cut us off,” McCarthick said. “There was an announcement on the loud speaker from the Kremlin. I don’t understand a word he is saying but he speaks for a while, then at exactly 7 o’clock the Kremlin bell starts ringing. For an entire minute it strokes for every second.
“When they got through, we played their national anthem and these people were going nuts for marching band stuff.”
“For a group from America to be the group that was there to share that with them was incredible,” Kelley said.
While the outdoor performances were a lot of fun, Kelley said the indoor concerts were something the group will never forget, playing in venues specifically designed for concert bands with educated/intellectual audiences. The band’s tour guide explained that people who attend these types of events in the major concert halls typically have one or two college degrees. But it was the sound that most impressed the group.
“The acoustics in the Moscow Conservatory …” Kelley said. “When you play those first few notes, you’re thinking ‘I don’t know what happened, but we have all just died and gone to heaven.’”
It was there that the band premiered Victory Day for Symphonic Band, a piece composed by Dr. Gary Belshaw, assistant professor of music at Wayland, specifically for the trip.
“As soon as the piece was done and I recognized him and the crowd realized the composer was in the audience with them, everybody was on their feet clapping,” Kelley said. “They were so appreciative.”
“It was as close to true nirvana as a musician can get,” Belshaw said.
Even the band student had a new-found appreciation for Belshaw’s work after playing it in that setting.
“To a lot of people when we were practicing it and playing it here, it didn’t make a lot of sense. I heard a lot of students say we just didn’t really get it,” McCarthick said. “But once we got over there and played it in that setting, I got it. It made sense. It was unreal and the crowd just loved it.”
Back in the friendly confines of the Wayland band hall, Kelley is finally starting to recover from the whirlwind trip.
“It’s not until you’ve taken a trip like this that you realize how important and how meaningful it is,” he said. “The Minister of Culture traveled with us while we were in Moscow. They had world leaders from 40 or 50 countries at that thing and security in the central part of the city where all these events were held was intense.
“To have someone sitting on the bus with you and you pull up to a barricade and he just shows his face and waves his hand and the barricade opens and they let us through … When it’s that kind of person who is traveling with you, all of a sudden you realize how important this really is to the Russian people. They had their highest ranking government official in the area traveling with us to give us the passage that we needed.
“This was beyond anything we could have imagined beforehand, and we have a lot of imagination around here.”