Being With The People: A Diary by Kirk Edwards: Leningrad 1989 — Thursday, June 22, 1989
For The Madera Tribune
A photo of the Coast Guard Band performing at the Village of Pushkin in the Soviet Union.
THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD BAND
On the occasion of the First U.S. Military Band to Visit the Soviet Union, (USSR)
In celebration of signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty
In 1989, Kirk Edwards, a 1973 MHS graduate, had an experience unique to Madera natives. He traveled as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Band to the Soviet Union — the first U.S. Band to do so. Throughout his stay, he kept a diary, an abridged copy of which is here published, in serial form, for the first time.
Friendships deepen and cognac flows
After breakfast, the Coast Guard Band was transported by bus to a large passenger ship terminal to perform for the arrival of the U.S. Coast Guard tall ship Eagle. It was a beautiful day and our excitement was reaching unparalleled heights. Our performance and partnership with the Leningrad Band seemed to foreshadow the relationship that our respective countries were formulating. But, the very thought of an American military vessel visiting the USSR seemed to be a more tangible indication of the efforts for peaceful co-existence.
As the Eagle came into view, we were filled with pride and excitement. The camera crews hustled into position to capture this historic arrival. We were not able to linger around the arrival location very long after Eagle secured its mooring. We departed soon after the conclusion of the arrival ceremony. A short rehearsal was scheduled at October Hall for the early afternoon hours
The October Hall rehearsal
October Hall is a relatively modern concert hall, completed for the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967. I was awed by the backdrop of the stage, which consisted of gigantic flags of the USA and the USSR on the back curtain. The collage of the special stage props was very striking.
I arrived at the October Hall with my usual collection of gifts. I carefully pulled Locia to the wings of the stage to present my Bible to him. I wrapped it in a plastic bag so that its contents would not be obvious to others. He was very grateful for the Bible and gave me several pieces of clarinet music by Soviet composers and several records in return.
Both bands rehearsed the challenging technical passages of the concert program separately and then jointly. The combined bands sounded magnificent as we rehearsed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Many of the band’s instrumental sections stood up to play passages that featured their instruments; the trumpets, baritones, French horns, bassoons and bass clarinets, tubas, and subsequently the entire band.
My stomach still felt a little unsettled during the October Hall rehearsal. But, this was just a prelude to the dysentery or diarrhea type symptoms that other Coast Guard Band members and I would soon experience.
We returned to the hotel to eat dinner immediately after the October Hall rehearsal. We barely had time to change into our performance uniforms before returning for the evening’s concert.
The concert started as both bands jointly performed the national anthems of the United States and the USSR. The Mistress of Ceremonies was the very attractive Leningrad news anchor Raisa Babazenka, who was a news anchorperson for Leningrad television. She was tall, sleek, and very elegantly attired, with distinctive European features. After Raisa opened the program with a short narrative in Russian and in English, she introduced a gentleman who gave a very eloquent speech regarding world peace.
The October Hall concert featured an alternation of performances by the Leningrad Band and the Coast Guard Band. The concert format was similar to a dialog of bands format. The repertoire performed by our bands was largely representative of our countries’ distinctive military music and symphonic musical traditions.
The two bands joined forces during the second half of the program to perform together. I was so overcome with emotion that I could scarcely concentrate on playing the musical repertoire during the concert. I was captivated by the passion that exuded from their conductors. Also, it was still difficult for me to believe that I was able to visit Leningrad and the Soviet Union.
Members of the audience presented bouquets of flowers to the conductors and the soloist after almost every selection during the concert. Many of the flower bearers were cute little Russian girls with big white bows in their hair. The audience insisted that the bands perform many encores.
An incredibly spirited and memorable reception followed immediately after the conclusion of the October Hall concert, in the basement of the concert hall. We all relished this time to become more acquainted with our colleagues from our counterpart’s bands. But, the language barrier was still a tremendous impediment. The Leningrad Band and the U.S. Coast Guard Band started the festivities by exchanging gifts. The Leningrad Band presented an ornate mace and a beautiful silver bowl to the U.S. Coast Guard Band. The Coast Guard Band presented U.S. Coast Guard Band T-shirts and ball caps to the members of the Leningrad Band. A tremendous array of food and drink was available at the reception. The refreshments included a variety of breads, fish, sausage, cheeses, and champagne and cognac to drink. I tried to go to the men’s room on one occasion. But, I kept encountering so many interesting people that I never reached the bathroom.
The Coast Guard Band public affairs specialist, Randy Midgett took pictures of the musicians according to their instrumental sections for the combined bands.
I was still enjoying socializing when the clarinet players started calling my name. The members of the Leningrad Band clarinet section asked me to pose with my head in a lampshade to demonstrate my height. So, I posed with my clarinet with my head in the lampshade as they had requested. Everyone got a great kick out of it.
Everyone seemed to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the concert, our new friends, and our very presence in the Soviet Union.
We also contemplated the prospect of continued peace between our countries and the integration of the Soviet Union into the world community. What a poignant moment! It seemed as though everyone wanted to preserve this moment for all times. We were clinging to our new friends as though we never wanted to say goodbye. The liquor was flowing freely as though we thought it could preserve this moment.
After the party ended, band members were walking around with cummerbunds around their heads and with their shirts in disarray because they had given away their studs and cuff links. Then we were informed that we had to leave. The agreement with October Hall specified that the party must end by one o’clock. Then we reluctantly pulled ourselves together and said our goodbyes.
We walked home not only intoxicated by the spirits which flowed at the reception, but from all that transpired that evening during the concert and reception, and the events that we had previously experienced during our visit to Leningrad. We all sat around our hotel room and recounted the momentous events that had transpired that evening in disbelief.