How a Love of Music Bridges the Barriers

I CRIED my way through Russia and Estonia -- and loved every minute of it. I cried when the woman in the audience of laborers at the diesel-engine factory stood up and, with tears streaming down her cheeks, sang ''America'' with us.

I cried when the white-haired Estonian lady hugged me after our concert in Tallinn's Town Hall Square and, searching for words to express her delight at finding Americans in a country long shut off from the West, finally found one: ''Hallelujah!''

I cried when the villagers of Uglich stood singing on the banks of the Volga River, after waiting four hours to escort us to their Culture Palace. Our joint performance, which was delayed by river fog, still had a full house after midnight.

And I cried when our chorus stepped to the edge of the stage in Bratsk, Siberia, to sing ''Imagine'' in Russian and English for our audience of 800. As we finished and walked up the aisles, hands reached out to grasp ours and to offer bouquets. And somehow we were all singing ''Dona Nobis Pacem.''

Common language or not, we knew that all any of us has ever wanted is to live in peace. Those of us -- Russians and Americans -- who had grown up during the cold war especially appreciated the preciousness of being together after being taught to fear and maybe someday fight each other.

Yes, I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat a good part of my three trips to Russia with Sharing a New Song, a Boston-based choral exchange program. But there was also plenty of laughing, singing, and dancing.

Our hosts, choruses we linked up with for joint concerts and visits during our three-week stay, saved their ration stamps so that we could toast each other and share mir and droozhba (peace and friendship) during welcome parties, at after- concert parties, and at farewell parties.

There were toasts, too, at the apartment of old friends in Yaroslavl, a city about four hours from Moscow that has become our ''home base'' in Russia. Several choruses from that city have visited us in the United States.

Ten years ago, when the exchanges began, we could not go to our friends' homes. But times have changed, and now they take us by bus and trolley through the city to their homes, which are often in rows of deteriorating high-rises.

Our hosts seem embarrassed by the decaying streets and structures outside, the dark, dank stairways inside where the hall lights and the elevator rarely work. They seem relieved to open the thick reinforced door and welcome us inside their tiny apartment.

Here they can be proud of the carpet adorning the living-room wall, the shelves behind glass doors crammed with books and records and family china and treasures, and the table overflowing with caviar, Russian ravioli, cucumbers, and the sweetest of desserts.

We communicate somehow, look at old photos and take new ones, and enjoy music. They exclaim over the tinned meat, kitchen utensils, pantyhose, and paper goods we have brought for them; we treasure the paintings, handcrafts, Russian art books, traditional shawls, and wooden dolls they have for us. We hug and kiss goodbye and wonder silently if we shall ever meet again.

Meet again or not, the experience has been profound. Time after time, in Estonian castles, Siberian airports, youth camps, trade-union resorts, Mongolian villages, and ornate churches, I have been surrounded by faces full of smiles -- and tears. The smiles come from discovering that Americans (who, they were taught, care only about money) love music as much as they do -- and came all this way to share that love with them.

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