Russian Chorus' leader hits all the right notes

Singing: The director of a UMBC group that helps students learn the language is preparing for a rare public show.

April 16, 2004|By William Wheeler | William Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Belarus native Slava Liberman offers some advice to the choral students gathered before him.

"Lean on one another like a drunk leans on a fence," he says. "You must sing together like one person."

His charges smile and nod in understanding. They are familiar with his colorful teaching style.

For the past seven years, Liberman, a 56-year-old custodian for the Howard County school system, has been the leader and the inspiration of the Russian Chorus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"He is always trying to get us closer together - like sardines, he tells us - so we can hear each other better," says Steven Young, the group's faculty liaison and a member since the chorus' inception. "He is somewhat of an exotic type, a character. Students love him."

In a rehearsal for tomorrow's performance of Russian folk music at the Charlestown Retirement Community, Liberman displays his distinctive manner.

His gestures are spirited as he directs the group in a voice that rises and falls, alternating between Russian and accented English. Occasionally, he erupts spontaneously into song and laughter.

Living under Soviet rule, Liberman's first exposure to folk music was a one-channel radio, installed in every apartment in his small hometown, that blared from sunrise until midnight.

Did the townspeople ever grow tired of the channel? "We had no choice," he says, laughing. "We were afraid. We listened to what they told us."

After earning two bachelor's degrees - one in art history and the other in choral conducting - Liberman moved to the United States in 1991, seeking "a better life and future for my children."

Because his degrees didn't immediately help him find a job in music, he labored in a laundry to support his family. During those hard years, his passion for music sustained him.

"I could turn on the radio and ... " he turns to Young for help translating a phrase, then continues, "suddenly, I am in another world."

When he later found work as a school custodian, Liberman heard melodies in the chatter of children's voices as they milled around the hallways. He recalls feeling a "great passion to work with students again."

After circulating his resume to various schools in hopes of becoming a choral conductor, Liberman was invited to UMBC in 1996 to deliver a lecture on Russian folk music.

He so impressed students and faculty that school officials invited him to form a choral group. Because the chorus was developed to help beginning language students master Russian phonics, the program is part of the school's department of modern languages and linguistics.

"Singing is controlled speech," Young says. "If you're learning any language, singing is a wonderful way to get the sound patterns down."

The group practices twice a week and performs twice a semester. As Liberman leads the group in its final rehearsal through a sequence of a cappella harmonies, it is hard to tell that some members not only lack an extensive knowledge of Russian but also come from a limited musical background.

Under Liberman's direction, the group has begun to attract students with various levels of experience, including native Russian students as well as students from the music department. This semester's group includes several talented soloists, Young says.

The chorus performs annually at a reception for graduating seniors in the department of modern languages and linguistics, but tomorrow's performance will be its first off-campus event in years. The free concert, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Charlestown Retirement Community, 711 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville.

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