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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

And the Band Plays On

The Soviet Union has been dead and gone for more than a year, but the Red Army Ensemble is carrying on as if nothing happened. The famous military dancers and musicians are preparing to join celebrations in Volgograd in February to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. After that, they are taking their peculiarly Soviet brand of entertainment on tour to South Korea.


"From the sidelines you may think we have problems, but we are just working, working, working", declared their conductor. Colonel Igor Agafonnikov.


Offstage, Agafonnikov, 60, might be mistaken for a defense minister from the Brezhnev era. On stage, you see another person, passionate, sensitive, wild. At a recent rehearsal in the Frunze Officer's Club in central Moscow, he was taking the choir through a chorus from Shaporin's opera "The Decembrists". At one tap of his baton the whispering men fell silent. He raised it and they burst into song. His face strained with emotion as he drew the powerful sound to a diminuendo. "Shh, quiet, any fool can roar, singing quietly is real high flying", he told them.


The Red Army Ensemble dates back to 1928 when eight singers, two dancers and an accordion player got together to entertain Soviet troops with folk music. To lead and expand this group, the Bolsheviks chose a civilian, Alexander Alexandrov, a professor of the Moscow Conservatory and the choirmaster of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, which Stalin was later to dynamite.


About 30 other troupes sprang from the parent ensemble to work in different parts of the country and on warships. These lesser ensembles use musically talented young men doing their compulsory military service. But the Alexandrov ensemble, which Agafonnikov leads, accepts only professional musicians. They are musicians first, soldiers second. They come from all over the former Soviet Union. Here Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians and Jews work in harmony together.


Agafonnikov joined the army for form's sake in 1987 when he took over the ensemble after a 22-year career as choirmaster of the Bolshoi Theater. Most members of the ensemble are civilians who don uniforms only tor the performances of classical music and ballet, folk songs and dance, and patriotic and military favorites.


"We have grown beyond the limits of the army and have a wide repertoire, everything from Glinka to Schubert", says Agafonnikov. "Our orchestra is unique because we include folk instruments like dombras and balalaikas. We are popular with people in all walks of life. In the United States we sing 'God Bless America' and in Germany we do Beethoven". In Seoul, the ensemble will perform some Korean songs for which they have had coaching from Asia specialists at Moscow State University.


The 180-member ensemble (all men except for a few girls in the corps de ballet) is reviving marches of the pre-revolutionary Russian Army, but it is not rejecting the Communist repertoire. "Never mind the ideology, the Communists produced some terrific tunes, especially during the Great Patriotic War", says the colonel. The ensemble is cutting two CDs of war songs in readiness for the 50th anniversary of the 1945 victory over fascism.


They do not bother with rock music. "Others do it better than we could, so we let them", says the colonel. "Fashions come and go, but what we do is eternal".


The ensemble is venturing into commercial activity but it still receives financial support from the Defense Ministry despite hefty military spending cuts. The average monthly wage is only 7, 000 rubles but Red Army performers are better off than many Russian musicians whose state subsidies have dried up and who are struggling for sponsorship or simply going under.


"Even during the Great Patriotic War, when we did not have enough men at the front, the ensemble was kept going because it was regarded as being important for society", says the colonel. "I don't think the state will let us down".