Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
PerspectiveA Peaceful Life
By Jim Dexter
Alumnus and forner professor John Williams led former members of his Wittenberg Choir in song on Campus in June. Alumni reported it was like they never left, but the fact is, a lot has happened since those days.
Moscow in 1978 was not a place to expect to find singers from a small Ohio college.
Soviets and Americans were still nuclear adversaries, experimenting with uneasy dιtente. In just a few years the Soviet Union would become the Empire.
The scenario was also unlikely because many Soviet republics boasted e: lent choral traditions -- standards that are only rarely approached in the US.
Yet there they were. The Wittenberg Choir, receiving enthusiastic app as political and cultural emissaries in a strange land. It was one of many trips the choir under the leadership of John Williams, '67MED, between 1969 a time when concert tours took Wittenberg singers to Spain, Portugal, Ger Denmark, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and throughout the U.S.
But for Williams the experience was just the beginning of a contin story that stretched nearly 20 years. While his name and contribution is u remembered and celebrated by many Wittenbergers, there is much more to Williams that is not generally known. It is a story of high art, high finance, o high risk in which Williams did his part for, well, world peace.
The Universal Language
That trip to the Soviet Union was a musical triumph. They traveled Helsinki, Finland, the Estonian cities of Tallinn, Tartu, and Parnu, as well as Moscow and Leningrad. "We were welcomed everywhere we went," Will said. "The Wittenberg Choir had quite an impact."
They sang for 500 high officials of the Communist Party and the Politb in Moscow. In Estonia, their performance moved a famous poet to stand in audience and speak on the power of music to break down political and ideolo cal barriers between people.
Williams' son Jeff, with the late Wittenberg composer Jan Bender, took in the sights near the Kremlin when the Wittenberg Choir performed in Moscow. In Leningrad, they performed to a packed crowd in St. Peter's Hall, after which they were all invited by the U.S. Counselor General to a Fourth of July dinner at his home attended by diplomats from around the world. The leader of the local Communist Party said after the Moscow performance: "Comrades if we would unite our voices with these voices, we would no longer have a Cold War, making weapons of mass destruction against each other," Williams recalled.
Those comments were published in the controlled Soviet press. It was truly music to Williams' ears. Since he had experienced a colossal choral festival in Estonia the year before where he realized the potential of music for promoting greater understanding between East and West. That Wittenberg Choir tour fed his own dream to find a way to make that potential a reality.
Williams first met Gustav Ernesaks in 1976 at the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration of Choral Music in Interlochen, Michigan. As president elect of the American Choral Association's Midwest region, Williams served as the elderly conductor's host. The two choral conductors quickly became friends, but it would be sometime before Williams would understand Ernesaks' importance. As the People's Artist of the USSR, Ernesaks was a name known by just about every Soviet citizen, and as one of the world's great choral geniuses, Williams discovered, he even exerted great political influence in Moscow.
Ernesaks invited Williams to attend a huge choral music festival to be held during the summer of 1977 in Tallinn, Estonia. "I didn't want to go initially," Williams said. "I couldn't comprehend what he was talking about." Professor Eugene Swanger had already arranged a sabbatical trip for Williams to serve as a consultant for choirs in Japan. But Ernesaks kept contacting him, encouraging him to attend, and when an official invitation came from the Soviet Minister of Culture he decided to spend his sabbatical as special guest of the Estonian Soviet Supreme Command, attending Estonian Song and Dance Festival.
Americans were not welcome in the USSR in those days, and those who did travel there were restricted to major Russian cities. No outsiders had been allowed to attend the Estonian choral festival since Stalin annexed the central European nation at the beginning of World War II.
Williams flew to Moscow and then to Leningrad, where KGB officials informed him that foreigners had to remain in Leningrad for three days before they could leave the city. Three days would put him in Tallinn after the choral festival. In despair, Williams called his friend Ernesaks and turned the phone over to the KGB officials. "As soon as they heard Gustav's name they went white and picked up the phone," Williams laughed. After that, the KGB still controlled Williams' movements, but this time by making sure he arrived at the festival on time, delivering him in a limousine, where he was met, literally, with a red carpet and a crowd of press photographers covering his arrival.
Williams began to understand Ernesaks' celebrity as he experienced the choral tradition of this part of the world. The average citizen of the then-Soviet republics took choral music very seriously. There, choirs are a national pasttime, a major social outlet and a source of great civic pride, where professional choirs are more popular than national sports teams, he said. But that knowledge did not fully prepare Williams for what he heard in Estonia.
"I was just completely blown away," he said. "I had never heard choral music like that in my life." Over the coming years, walking the back streets of those nations, Williams would hear lovely choral singing coming out of ordinary houses where friends had gathered to visit. But at his first Soviet choral festival, the impact of 34,000 disciplined singers on stage, joined by an audience of one-fifth of Estonia's population, 300,000 gifted "amateurs," was quite overwhelming.
The experience also taught Williams that, in a totalitarian society, art and politics mix freely. He could see the Soviets embrace music's propaganda value. "I was the only American there and everywhere I went news cameras would follow me and they would want to interview me," he said. "It was a very sensitive time. Meanwhile I'm on TV constantly; as the first westerner there in decades. I'm standing on the reviewing stand with officials of the Communist party. I was worried about being a propaganda tool."
He also saw how music could promote humanity. "I found that Soviets were afraid of Americans," said Williams. "Most of the people I met had never met an American, and all they knew was what the authorities told them, that we were warlike, dangerous."
"Whenever I could I told them 'I am here because I love you and I want to promote peace. And don't be afraid to smile."'
By the end of the four-hour concert,Williams also witnessed the power of music for uniting subjugated peoples. As the concert drew to a close, the throng exhorted Emesaks to go to the podium and lead the singing of the "unofficial" Estonian national anthem "My Native Land is My Love" (which Ernesaks wrote). Almost immediately it began raining heavily, but none of the hundreds of thousands of Estonians moved. For 45-minutes they continued singing their anthem and every attempt to get them to stop only brought more impassioned singing.
Prepared for just such an outpouring of anti-Soviet sentiment, the Soviet army had ringed the entire festival grounds with tanks. "It was one of those moments when you felt like you wanted to do something heroic," Williams said. "I was tempted to exhort the crowd about the evils of Communism."
Fortunately he resisted the urge, because a single cannon shot rang out. "Instantly 300,000 people were totally hushed," Williams recalled. "They immediately shuffled out, they knew Moscow meant business, that the big bear had put his paw down."
Still, something heroic did not seem out of reach to this music professor from Wittenberg. In the Soviet Union he had felt like a celebrity and his art had inspired awesome passions. Sitting there in the rain, in the midst of this volatile political, emotional and artistic scene, Williams said God gave him a vision of staging a choral festival for peace.
Bridges of Song
The Wittenberg Choir tour Soviet Union the following year played an important part in William's plan as choir master turned diplomat. The U.S. State Department enthusiastically embraced the idea of sponsoring the Wittenberg singers in a cultural exchange Representatives of the foreign service's arts department came to campus to evaluate their fitness to represent their country giving them an A+ rating.
But to this day, Williams said he has never talked about the fact that the tour of the U.S.S.R. almost did not happen
Just days before Wittenberg the delegation of 80 students and adults was scheduled to depart for the Soviet tour, the Ministry of Culture abruptly canceled the visit without explanation. For three consecutive days, Williams flew back and forth to New York City to meet with Soviet officials. The Deputy Minister of Culture himself flew in from Italy, but could not speak a word of English, so Williams was sent away. Late that night back home Williams got a call summoning him back to a meeting with the Soviet minister,this time with an interpreter.
It was never clear why the Soviets waffled on the visit by an American choir. "I thought it was a political problem between Washington and Moscow," Williams said. How did he change the Russians' minds? The only thing he had trade on was his friendship with Ernesaks, and some bold "diplomatic" posturing.
"I was taking diplomacy into my own hands," he said. "I felt if our Congressmen and Senators knew what I was doing they would have died a thousand dead Ernesaks desperately wanted his professional men's choir to tour the U.S. "I out told the deputy minister that if he reneged on the promise to allow our choir to tour, there wouldn't be anything more from us" (overstepping his autho slightly by implying that us meant In fact I told them I would do everything in my power to prevent the Soviet choirs.visit. On the other hand, 1 promised that if the tour went on as planned, I would do everything I could to help the Soviet choir tour our country.
"It was one moment in my life where I felt good was overcoming evil," Williams recalled. "Still he went home without an agreement while the minister "conferred" with Mother Russia. The next morning came another telephone call and a third exhausting flight to New York to iron out the final agreement and details of the tour.
This time the Soviets were true to their word, and whenever the Wittenberg Choir was in Soviet territory they got VIP treatment, with welcoming flowers for all of the girls, and handsome young KGB escorts who were young enough to effectively blend in as choir members. Williams said the choir was both a musical and a diplomatic triumph. "I was so proud of them, they sang their hearts out everywhere they went."
Williams also eventually kept his promise to bring Ernesaks' Estonian Male Choir to the U.S. for a concert tour, partly at his own expense. The 1989 tour ended at New York City's Carnegie Hall.
All of these experiences helped Williams establish contacts in Washington, in Moscow and around the world that would be important in fulfilling his ultimate goal a world choral festival.
Much of the next 14 years was spent pursuing that vision. He wrote to Reagan and Gorbachev. He got appointments to speak to the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the Office of Soviet Affairs at the U.S. State Department. "Both said I was crazy," Williams said. His ideas were also ignored by national and regional choral organizations in this country.
Nevertheless, Williams kept the idea alive over the years. "I was sure that music could help build a bridge between the two countries."
In the meantime Professor Williams started a new chapter in his professional life. In 1981 he became a choral director for the Indianapolis Symphony, and for a year, commuted back to Springfield while continuing to teach at Wittenberg, until the strain became too much.
He said it was hard to leave such a strong program, which at its peak had more than 150 majors. "I weighed the decision very carefully. They were terrific years here. I hated to leave Wittenberg, but I could not continue to function on three hours of sleep."
The Indianapolis post brought much musical fulfillment, leading to opportunities to work with some of the world's top musicians John Nelson, Raymond Leppard, Robert Shaw, James Conlon, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Erich Kunzel.
But Williams never stopped asking everyone he could to give peace a chance. It was not until the Gorbachev/Reagan Summit in 1985 that Williams finally got a break. He got a call from Moscow one Saturday morning, days after the summit talks led to cultural accords between the two countries. He was told the world leaders had discussed his idea, that from Williams' own perspective, seemingly was not getting very far. Williams' persistence had put his peace festival on the short list of projects one that suddenly had Superpower priority status.
Williams flew to Moscow the next day without a visa. On Monday the Soviets announced that the world was invited to the Bridges of Song Choral Festival in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, from July 4-7,1991. Williams' festival suddenly was news around the world. But Williams still had years of work ahead of him, and success was by no means a sure thing.
It was an uncertain time. Just getting to this point was improbable enough. After Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis, came nearly 20 years of control by Leonid I. Brezhnev, years of detente accompanied by a simultaneous massive arms buildup. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The destabilizing Iran-Iraq War came the next year. Nations boycotted the ultimate expression of world peace, the Olympics, in 1980 and 1984.
After Brezhnev's death in 1982 came brief governments by Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko before Mikhail S. Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, leading to the summit with President Reagan. Gorbachev radically changed the structure of the government (glastnost or openness) and was determined to reform the domestic economy (perestroika or restructuring).
In 1986 came the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. The Palestinian Inqada began in 1987, fueled in 1990 with a mass immigration of Russian Jews to Israel, and the consequent increase in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Terrorism seemed on the rise, and not just among Arabs. In 1988, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began to move toward independence. In November 1988 Estonia claimed the right to nullify any Soviet law that infringed on local authority. A few months later Estonian was made the official language of the republic.
While the U.S. was busy with the Persian Gulf War in 1990, the Soviets began cracking down on the independence - minded Baltics. As soon as the Gulf War ended in March 1991, the Soviets pulled back on their discipline against the rebel republics.
Add to that the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, and the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, and the symbolic end of the 45-year-old Cold War with unification of East and West Germany in 1990, and you have a picture of the millieu in which John Williams was asking the world's parents to send their sons and daughters to sing in a concert for peace still scheduled for July 1991.
He had almost won major sponsorship from McDonald's, Coca Cola, and Ted Turner, only to see them pull out with the start of the Gulf War and the killings by Soviet troops in the Baltics. He rallied the interest of choral societies around the world, to have them recoil in fear as the region seemed to sink in a morass of political violence.
"It got tough," Williams observed 20 Wittenberg Magazine matter-of-factly of what he terms his own Cold War period. 'We mortgaged our home and spent our life savings." He actually left his post with the Indianapolis Symphony in 1989 to devote full-time to the venture, incorporating the International Concert Agency for Peace and Goodwill.
One of his champions during those years was an Estonian, a vice president for Pan American Airlines, who sent him first class, round trip tickets to the USSR when- Williams carried a torch during a 1989 nationalist protest "Light Baltic Fire," protesting the Soviet annexation of Baltic republics. ever he needed it. Once the festival was officially endorsed, the Soviets picked up the tab for all of his expenses abroad.
He also had some steadfast supporters in positive thinking, including the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale himself, and evangelist Robert Schuller. In particular, he remembered what Schuller told him the first time they discussed the choral festival "Young man," Williams recalled, "if you are going to take this on, follow it through, or you will never have any credibility."
It was good advice in retrospect, because Williams was somehow able to cobble together quite a titanic peace festival 22,500 singers from both East and West, singing music from around the globe to an audience of 400,000 in the capital city of what, in just a few months, would be independent Estonia.
Early on, Ronald Reagan wrote Williams a "nice letter" saying if Williams could pull off his concert, he would attend. President Bush almost attended the festival, but decided against it because the Estonian republic was not offocially recognized. "Still, it was pretty damn exciting," Williams said.
Four days of music and fellowship was climaxed by a two-hour parade and four-hour concert. Robert Schuller gave the invocation. The former U.S. national security adviser Zbignbiew Brzezinski delivered the keynote address at an economic conference related to the festival.
Yet this was still the Soviet Union dying maybe, but not powerless. Anarchy was building, and Williams said he heard rumors that week of the coup would come the following month. That uncertainty, perhaps, led to a last attempt by the KGB to stop the concert. Schuller this time provided the answer Williams said. He threatened to call CNN and do a live television broadcast on the decision to cancel the festival. As an American religious leader, Schuller was untouchable, Williams said, so the fe unfolded without further interferencw,
"John was the type who was never afraid of taking risks. He is one of greatest risk-takers I know," summed up Doug McConnell, a professor of music at Mississippi State University and accomplished composer, who recently won that university's highest teaching award. "A lot of us got to be along on the ride," he said.
For instance, McConnell, who was on the Wittenberg Choir's tour of the Soviet Union, was also one of the Wittenbergers who returned with Williams to Bridges of Song. There, one of his arrangements of an American folk song was heard by the world.
"He taught me that if you're not afraid to jump in you will have some of the greatest experiences in your life," said McConnell, who had to fill in for Willlams, conducting some rehearsals leading up to the peace festival. "All of a sudden I was in a bus with distinguished choral conductors from many nations, many of whom I could not communicate with, and dealing with thousands of singers who speak Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian. There were so many singers you thought there would be chaos, but these people so loved music that they were so attentive."
But, there is still more to Williams the risk-taker that is not generally known.
Toward the unknown region"They thought 1 was a spy," Williams said.
In fact, during the dozens of trips Williams made to the Soviet Union after 1985, he had his own personal spy. The KGB shadow, whom Williams dubbed "George" was always with him, beginning with his 1977 trip to his first Estonian choral festival. "I saw this sort of white haired guy who got on the plane with me in Chicago. I didn't think anything about it until I boarded my Aeroflot flight in New York to Moscow when he also got on my plane." Then again to Leningrad.
"I complained to the American embassy, and they said 'don't worry we have someone following him."
"He would never have coffee with me and ignored me when I tried to engage him in conversation." But Williams was not afraid of George's attention. "I knew what he was and I knew he was just doing his job. I was rather honored and flattered that they would spend that kind of money on me," he said.
Still Williams wonders why George was nowhere to be found oneday during the Wittenberg Choir trip, while he, his wife, son, and daughter were together on a Moscow street, when a man and two women were brutally murdered in broad daylight just 10 feet away.
There was, to be fair to the KGB, more to Williams than an American choral director trying to organize a music festival. At the same time Williams incorporated his International Concert Agency, he also created The Baltic Sagamore Company Inc.
From 1988 to 1992, Williams became a "player" in a very new game. He was among the very first entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on the immense potential of the opening Soviet market.
His efforts to organize various concert opportunities put him in a unique position, with the contacts, the knowledge and the opportunity to support the easing of East/West relations by bringing badly needed goods to that part of the world. "Once we had opened the doors with the music and saw what the people are really like, I thought that by connecting western technology and know-how, we could really improve their lives in a free market economy.
"I was only a peon in all of this, but at that time they were looking for anybody from the West to deal with," Williams explained. "I saw the opportunity that many people in the West saw, that when the Soviet Union was changing, there was tremendous potential in this huge new market."
To use a cliche, Williams did million dollar deals before breakfast, and often had as many as 14 deals in the works at the same time. He served as a middleman between buyers and investors in the West, and suppliers in the Soviet Union. He would broker timber, fuel, limousines, pork, precious metals, diamonds he would buy grain off the seas.
He would broker rubles for Western business consortia 500 billion rubles a deal in exchange for dollars, Deutschmarks, or Italian lira. "I learned a lot about banking in a short time for a music director," he joked.
Billionaire Armand Hammer also took an interest in Williams work. "One day I just picked up the phone and called Occidental Oil and talked to him," Williams said. "He offered advice on how to deal with the Soviets, and I contacted him regularly to ask his opinion."
"Those were dangerous times," recalled his wife Susan. "Each time I said goodbye to him at the airport, I knew I might not see him again." Williams was in Riga, Latvia just days after Russian troops opened fire on nationalists. He said he could still see the blood in the snow.
He was in Moscow in 1991, five days after the coup. That in fact was the last time he saw George, peering at him from a distance as Williams walked through the rubble and burned tanks outside the shattered parliament building, the Russian White House.
Williams said perhaps his low point was in January 1990. The Gulf War had begun and he was in Moscow, trying to lease giant Antinov 124 cargo planes to move pork to Japanese markets. The production plant in Kiev sent him to the Ministry of Defense which controlled 44 of the world's largest cargo planes. Williams explained to the Soviet general in charge of military aircraft that he wanted to lease three of the planes.
The general, who was obviously drunk, started a tirade about how the Red Army did not like American policy, nor Gorbachev's backing of Washington's position in the Gulf War. He told Williams the military was inclined to side with Iraq in the fighting.
"He said 'I don't know if I want to deal with you because I don't agree with your government.' And then he asked me what I thought of my president's decision," Williams said. "I was sitting there with my teeth chattering." He figured the conversation was being taped and he started wondering how many of his associates knew he was there.
"I answered that I support my president whatever happens," Williams said. He never got his planes, but Williams said he felt like he had been drugged, and during a break in the meeting he was left alone with a very pretty young lady who he felt was trying to get him in a compromising position.
Characteristically brash, Williams, while joking with the tipsy general, managed to get his photo taken with him. "He said 'You are bigger than we thought you would be," Williams recalled. "So I said, `you are a big guy too. Why don't we two big guys have our picture taken.' I still can't believe that I got out of there with that camera," he said.
"Before the 1991 coup, a group of businessmen from Soviet republics told me they wanted to transfer about 300 billion rubles to Switzerland." Williams had already arranged for a specially configured 747 jet to carry the cash before he was tipped off by associates that others had been approached earlier for a similar deal. The Russian mafia met them at the airport and killed everyone involved, his sources told him.
He also worked on a deal to locate 60 Wal-Mart-type stores in cities around the country. He was already busy planning the warehouse distribution system when friends warned him that anytime merchandise was delivered to the warehouses, it would immediately be stolen by the mafia. He abandoned the project.
"I was really excited about that," Williams said. "I was going to be the Sam Walton of the Soviet Union. To me it was pretty exciting to make these deals. I saw an opportunity to make some money." But he added that it was also something that would improve the lives of people trapped in true subsistence living, where one-third live in poverty.
The U.S.S.R. was not an easy place to do business. The coup attempt came just one month after Bridges of Song. Gorbachev's vice-president, Gennadi Yanayev headed the junta that placed Gobachev under house arrest as Soviet tanks swept over Moscow. But the coup was opposed by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation who inspired resistance by calling for a general strike and demanding that Gorbachev be returned to power. The other superpowers immediately cut off Soviet aid and the botched coup unraveled within 72 hours, as elements of the army turned against it.
The historic events that followed came quickly over the next five months. Gorbachev resigned as head of the Communist party, which disbanded itself. The Congress followed, dissolving itself. Russia recognized the independence of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Most of the rest of the Soviet republics joined in a Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev resigned as president on Dec. 25. Control of Russia was shifted to Yeltsin and, after 74 years, the Soviet Union had vanished.
After the fall, what was already a difficult business environment became truely chaotic, Williams said. He wasn't earning much money in the business because many of the contracts that were signed were not honored by the Soviets.
"What I didn't realize was that many of the people we were dealing with were in a kind of second economy, an underground black market." As the Soviet system deteriorated, it actually got more unsettling to try to conduct business in the former Soviet Union, he said.
Williams decided to abandon his business enterprise. He never regretted it since in 1994, there were 10,000 contract killings of business people in that part the world. Instead he returned to music as a professor and choir director at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa.
After years of building award-winnin choirs, Williams was suddenly afflicted by meningitis in January 1996. He was in a coma, and doctors believed would not survive. Williams did recover, but the illness left its mark, and since the choir director slowly began to go deaf. Also related to the illness was the onset of Meniere's Disease, a form of vertigo, which together have led Williams to early from his faculty position.
Williams said the Alumni Choir Reunion during Alumni Weekend, which attracted more than 70 of his former students, was a moving and joyful experience which he would love to see repeated in two years.
In the meantime, Williams is writing a book about his Soviet experiences, covering both his musical and business exploits.
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