Yale’s Wiffenpoofs Fly to Riga

  • 2015-06-04
  • By Michael Mustillo

RIGA - The Whiffenpoofs, an undergraduate a group from Yale University, and one of the oldest collegiate groups in the United States,  made their first Baltic appearance at the end of May with a packed concert performance at the St.Saviour’s Anglican Church in Riga. Two hundred and fifty concert goers witnessed an engaging evening of a cappella songs with 14 senior Yale males   displaying  sheer vocal artistry,  sprinkled with   showmanship that kept the audience entertained.    

The Rt Rev’d Jana Jeruma-Grinberga and St.Saviour’s Anglican Church have recently gained media attention in Latvia, due  to  an earlier decision made in May,  by the organising committee of the Night of Churches to refuse St.Saviour’s participation in Baznicu nakts (Night of Churches) on the 5 June.
 The leaders of the 3 main ‘traditional denominations’ (as they are usually referred to) had originally discussed the event, and wished it to remain within the boundaries of their denominations – i.e. Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Orthodox – with other congregations  not being permitted to take part.

The Latvian Roman Catholic Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevics  had consulted with the Lutheran Archbishop and the Orthodox Metropolitan in Latvia, and together the church leaders had expressed a desire that ‘ Baznicu nakts’ should be an event where only congregations of Latvian traditional denominations should be invited to take part. An uproar ensued, the decision has since been reversed and   St.Saviour’s Anglican Church in Riga will in fact take be opening its doors to the public and taking part in the Night of Churches on 5 June.

‘’The congregation of  St.Saviour’s was founded in 1822, and the foundation stone of the church was laid in 1857. In fact a shipload of earth was sent from Britain so that the church could be built on British soil. St.Saviour’s does have a vibrant music program and many believe,  as does St.Saviour’s internationally renowned organist Kristine Adamaite, a winner at the 2015 Latvian Grand Music Award, that  St. Saviour’s is an outstanding acoustic space. We are extremely grateful to the US Embassy in Riga and their staff for the support that they given us to continue in efforts in building dialogue through culture, and the strong turn out for the concert attests to outstanding work being done by the US Embassy in Riga and Latvia ’’  said Jeruma-Grinberga.

Founded in 1909,   the Whiffenpoofs have become one of Yale’s most celebrated traditions. The word whiffenpoof, according to the group’s business manager, originated in the 1908 opera Little Nemo by Victor Herbert, which was based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay.
Of the many of The Whiffs’ the best-known alumnus who stands out is the American composer and songwriter Cole Porter. Porter  sang in the 1913 lineup, and the group performed one of Porter’s songs in tribute during their Riga concert.
 The Whiffenpoofs travel extensively during the academic school year, and have recently embarked on a three-month world tour, a tour that has been self-funded, largely through ticket sales revenue, guest concert appearances,  and the sale of CDs.  

 The group’s concert appearance in Riga was primarily due to the deep-rooted connection to Latvia of one of the group’s current members,  Yale student Elliah Heifetz. Though himself born in America,  Elliah’s parents and sister  were born in Latvia. Elliah Heifetz’s father Samuel Heifetz was himself a distinguished professional musician in Latvia, and immigrated to the USA in 1990 with his entire family. Samuel Heifetz is employed as an independent orchestrator and music director at the Arcadia University, a  private university located on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Samuel Heifetz undertook his music education at the Emils Darzins School of Music and the Latvian State Conservatoire. Among the many who guided his musical development was the legendary Latvian conductor Leonids Vigners, a ‘genius in the interpretation of great classic music’ Heifetz said.  Maestro Vigners himself graduated from the Latvian Conservatoire in 1930, and studied composition with the leading exponent of national romanticism in Latvia, the composer Jazeps Vitols. Samuel Heifetz’s ensemble Via Tertia achieved great popularity in Latvia, and  made an appearance in the 1990  Latvian film  Eve’s Garden of Paradise,  directed by Arvids Krievs.  

 It was an emotional experience that touched Elliah Heifetz deeply,  returning to the land of his forefathers and to his roots. Elliah is studying English literature at Yale University, and returning to Riga enabled him to learn further of his family’s history. Though he does not speak Latvian, he did grow up with Latvian culture in the US, especially Latvian food culture. His walk around the Riga Central market, Elliah stated jokingly, ‘’was like seeing my kitchen cupboard back home. ‘’It was such an emotional experience seeing my father’s old home where he lived, standing in the old Riga synagogue where my grandfather attended, and visiting the burial sites of family  members. I have also been delighted that The Whiffenpoofs have been able to come and perform in Riga, and for my father and mother to have been able to return back to Latvia. Also it has been a rewarding experience having worked with the Riga Girls Choir, who joined our Riga concert’’, Elliah said.

 The Whiffenpoofs concert was attended by a number of noted Latvian political figures, including  Ojars Eriks Kalnins.  Kalnins  joined Latvia’s diplomatic mission in exile in the US, the Latvian Legation in January 1991, as their public affairs liaison. When Latvian restored its independence later that year, the Legation became the Latvian Embassy, and  Kalnins became Deputy Chief of Mission. He was also assigned to Latvia’s newly established Mission to the UN in New York, and that same year he found himself on the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, explaining Latvia one more time to this august body of international diplomats. Kalninsš served  as Latvia’s Ambassador to the United States from 1993 until 2000, and then served as the Director of the Latvian Institute for the next 10 years, a state agency whose mission is…to explain Latvia.  In 2010 Kalnins was elected to the Parliament of Latvia, becoming the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

 Asked how he currently sees US Latvian relationships, Kalnins stated:  ‘’Politically we’ve always talked about it being a strategic relationship,  but  the reality is that it’s a very warm human relationship and I think that was reinforced by the concert of the Whiffenpoofs this evening.’’

 ‘’There is so much that we can take from each other, even the fact that we had a Latvian choirs singing tonight with the Whiffenpoofs,  singing the same songs whether in English or in Latvian, just reinforces friendships’’ Kalnins said.
 As to trade relationship between the two countries:  ‘’Our aim is wanting them to improve more. I guess our big goal is that we would like to see the US European Trade Partnership go through, because that would make things better for everybody, and make it a lot easier for small Latvian businesses to export to the US. I think that’s very important. We appreciate the work of the US  is doing in Latvia. It’s  a critical time for us to have support not just in Europe but also back in the US’’ Kalninsš said.

 The host of The Whiffenpoofs concert was Sharon Hudson-Dean, a career American diplomat, and  the Charge d’Affaires, a.i. at the U.S. Embassy in Riga. A  recipient of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association Achievement Award, Hudson-Dean welcomed the concert audience with a speech in fluent Latvian. Asked about United States cultural diplomacy with Latvia, Hudson-Dean commented that  ‘’Relationships between our two countries being very strong and old, and based on lot of friendship and trust on the cultural side, students, people to people, cultural groups, we  have been thrilled to  have been able to host the  Whiffenpoofs appearance in Riga.’’

The Whiffenpoofs concluded the concert with “The Whiffenpoof Song”, the group’s traditional closing number. The song became a hit for a number of artists, for Rudy Vallee in 1927 and later in 1947 for Bing Crosby. It has also been recorded by music notables as  Elvis Presley, Count Basie, Perry Como, the Statler Brothers, and countless others.
From Riga, The Whiffenpoofs travel to Paris for the next leg of their concert tour of Europe, then to Brussels, and numerous concerts throughout  Europe, before heading for Australia.