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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dutchman Leads Choir Of Cossacks

Hands moving back and forth as though squeezing a pair of bellows, the conductor stands at the front of the ornate 17th-century church.

As the sound of a Cossack folk song floats around the church nave, he stops to issue instructions to the singers in front of him.

Mouthing the words as the singing continues, Dutch citizen Marcel Verhoeff is the only non-Cossack, or even non-Russian, of the world-renowned Don Cossack Choir.

"It’s a typical Russian choir and typical Russian music," said the less-than-typical conductor.

"It’s my second homeland; I feel at home here [and] I feel free," said Verhoeff last week between rehearsals.

Verhoeff, who was on a fleeting visit to Moscow, will lead the choir, known officially as the Don Kosaken Chor Russland, on a European tour beginning this week. Since its creation in the early 1990s, the choir has regularly performed to large crowds, with audiences of 10,000 to 20,000 not unusual. Last week’s concerts, however, were somewhat more exclusive — the choir performed for the government at the White House, as well as for the Dutch Club.

Verhoeff first became involved in Russia nearly 20 years ago, after taking over the reins of an amateur choir in The Hague that specialized in Russian music. With little prior knowledge of Russian music, Verhoeff went to a rehearsal and said he was bowled over.

"I was really impressed by the sounds, the voices. I was in another world," he said.

At the end of the 1980s, he visited Russia and on the trip was asked to conduct a performance for live television of Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy at the Tchaikovsky music festival. The artistic director of the Don Cossack Choir, then only in the formative stage, was so impressed by the performance that he asked Verhoeff to become the group’s first conductor.

Verhoeff agreed, and in 1993 the 15-man choir was finally founded. The conductor and the singers practiced together for over a year before their first concert.

"At the beginning it was not easy because [the singers] didn’t understand at first that a conductor is a person who lets them be free," Verhoeff said, adding that the choir’s appeal lies in the fact that all of the members are professional soloists whose voices combine into a rich musical experience.

It’s obvious from the camaraderie that the Cossack choir and their Dutch conductor get along well.

"I like the atmosphere," said singer Alexander Zakharov. "I like him as a person and I like the music. And the main thing is that the concerts go off well."

"He finds the words and the emotion and is easy to work with," chimed in singer Nikolai Petrenko.

The choir generally restricts itself to Cossack songs — whether spiritual, classical or folkloric renditions — but sometimes has to make exceptions in its repertoire for foreign audiences.

"Leaving the stage without ‘Kalinka’ is impossible," Verhoeff said.