Adrian Snell: Charting the singer's tour of the Baltic States

Sunday 1st December 1991

ADRIAN SNELL with an East German choir took his 'Alpha And Omega' musical into the Baltic States in August. Tony Cummings and Jonathan Day report.

Adrian Snell
Adrian Snell

Suddenly the laughing in the bus quietened. They were approaching the USSR border and the teenage East German choir, on the road with Adrian Snell for The 'Alpha And Omega' Tour began to glance nervously about them. As the Christian music entourage bumped across the border, several of the musicians saw them: a clump of soldiers talking quietly. Suddenly one of the grey-coated men with a black grimace of gallows humour ran his finger across his throat and muttered a single word, a word repeated often on the bus ride to Vilnius, a word which within hours was to echo around the electronic media of the globe, a word once a name of hope but now the seeming embodiment of shattered dreams - Gorbachev.

The hard-line communist coup commenced on 19th August was, in the words of the BBC, 'the six days that changed the world'. For Adrian Snell, saxophonist David Fitzgerald, dancer Sandy Phillips, two Dutch technicians and the 30-memberlmPuls choir the tour into the Baltic states was more than the culmination of a year-long slog by Adrian and his manager to take the 'Alpha And Omega' musical to Eastern Europe. It was more even than finding themselves literally a tank's length away from History In The Making. For Adrian it was the start of a life-changing week which has completely reshaped the singer/pianist's attitude to his ministry and the awesome sovereignty of God by reinforcing with heart-stopping experience that God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise. The events had started inauspiciously enough.

"When I got to Poland I was really eagerly anticipating the tour, but, to be honest felt very empty." The Dutch PA and lighting company had left behind vital equipment, necessitating an overnight dash from Holland, and the 3000 specially manufactured tapes, all the proceeds from which were to be given away, didn't catch up with the tour until they were well into Poland.

From their arrival at the first date, however, it became obvious that a special work was afoot. "I had no idea that Lublin, Poland, served one of the largest concentration camps of all, Majdanek, which saw the murder of 380-400,000 Jews and others. We went to Majdanek and spent a harrowing two hours at this place. It's one of the most profoundly preserved of the concentration camps. You walk through barracks with hundreds of thousands of children's shoes, documents related to those imprisoned, little works of art sculptured by the inmates out of any materials they could find.'

Hartmut Stiegler, leader of the German youth choir, said 'Deeply moved and shaken by the infinite sorrow and pain we asked, 'How can we, as Germans, possibly meet up on stage in Lublin tonight and sing joyful songs?' In the concert we experienced that God's mercy makes it possible to move towards one another. The Bach chorale 'I was granted mercy' was at the centre of our set before all of us performed 'Alpha And Omega'. Its topic: how much suffering people have brought over this world because they didn't ask God's advice for their lives, but also how great is His mercy and love. At no other performance did we experience the opening piece 'Kaddish For Bergen-Belsen' with such intensity.

'The next day Gorbachev fell. "Because of the speed at which we got through customs the rumours that were flying about weren't too convincing' remembers Adrian. "But when we heard the BBC World Service, my immediate reaction was excitement. This tour of the Baltic was first planned over a year ago. Nobody knew the circumstances under which we were led to the Soviet Union, but God did. The message of 'Alpha And Omega' would be all the more relevant under these circumstances. There was no fear in the sense of 'why are we here?' It was much more 'O my goodness'. The incredible thing was crossing the border when we did. If we hadn't I would have pushed to go possibly with a small team, but it's hard to imagine the leader of the choir, purely out of responsibility, feeling able to take 30 young people into such uncertainty. We were making plans to continue while most other nationals were leaving. We were perceived by the authorities as being out of our minds." Hartmut Stiegller was told by the church partners in Sianliai, 'Don't by any means continue your journey in the dark. Behind Vilnius tanks are blocking the roads - no way to get past. Young Lithuanians kidnapped by Soviet soldiers, the Radio Station occupied, the Lithuanian head of police saying good-bye, maybe forever, taking to the woods with 1500 armed men, waiting for the tanks.'

The party, stunned by the events but determined to pursue their 'Alpha And Omega' Tour itinerary, found the only international hotel in Vilnius. It proved to be a night Adrian would never forget. "That night at nine o'clock we checked into the rooms. One of the team called me to the window. Soviet tanks were going through the city. That night between 90 and 100 tanks came through Vilnius intimidating the people. That evening, having seen the tanks come through knowing the events which we were caught up in, I just had to be there. There was a line beyond which you felt 'I'm here; I'm not going to sit and view this TV screen. I need to be part of this.' We walked down to the Parliament building by which time a crowd - men, women, old people, children - was gathered. It was to protect the government building. You can't put the feeling into words. There are memories of the silence around that building. Outstanding. There was no riot, no shouting. The only noise was Lithuanian messages coming out of the speakers, such control and depth, no shouting, just the quiet tones of the broadcasters. Groups huddled around transistor radios. The crowd was gathering and preparing for a Soviet assault that night. Lithuanian guards were arriving. Dave Fitzgerald and I sat down. We listened to Lans Bergus - an incredible message in Lithuanian. The mood of what he was saying was so powerful. We discovered later he'd said: 'Be ready tonight, and this is a farewell if you lose your lives.' We stayed until 2.00am when Bergus appeared briefly and said: 'All is not lost, Yeltzin is mobilizing his people and is on our side.' We left knowing that we might wake up the next morning to bloodshed outside that building. This was the background on which we built our journey and the performances themselves; that memory.

"The coach took back roads out of Vilnius next morning to avoid the tanks, and arrived safely in Sianliai. The concert would be to a cross-section of society. The Christian Arts there do not have a counter-culture mentality. Religious artists for the last decade have been profoundly respected in Eastern Europe, because they have been the voice of protest in their country. Remember Valeri Barinov. There isn't a nice tidy little subculture that doesn't have a lot to say. If you are a Christian artist there, you will only be so because you have an extremely powerful message to bring. That is something I have found deeply encouraging."

The concert was a stunning success. Hartmut Stiegler led his choir in 'Rejoice', an arrangement of the Beatitudes, in Sianliai's main theatre. Overhead, Soviet fighters punctuated the chorale with sonic boom. The Soviet air force at that point was going to start bombing the city. Hartmut spoke to the crowd. "We have come from Germany and we are very happy to be here tonight and to experience these difficult times together.' He turned to the choir. "By heart we sang 'Lietuira Brangi', a song we picked up from a Lithuanian record. Behind me there was a noise. When I turned round I was overwhelmed. The audience had risen as one and joined in a loud voice. 'You are precious to me Lithuania, my home country.' Hardly an eye remained dry.' Adrian took the stage with the prayer "Lord, just let this work speak to people.' In the first half of the concert we performed 'When I Co You Are There' based on Psalm 27. A line in the song says 'The Lord is my light and my salvation. Every day He is the stronghold in every way. If an army were around me even then...' Estonia and Latvia were about to officially declare independence. Tanks were in Riga and Tallinn, the harbours blocked. Parachute troops had landed in the woods and controlled the main roads.'

Adrian continued, "Why do the nations rage and fall, the people plot in vain against the Lord. And in that day the Lord shall come to humble those who cast aside his law.' This is the beauty of the arts, they have such a timeless authority and relevance, they can come alive in a brand new way. Singing those words I was thanking God that his word has timeless power."

As the concert progressed, Lithuanian TV broadcast a report recorded earlier during the sound check. Two hours later the station was shut down, taken over by Russian troops.

A reception followed the concert. Hartmut quotes the theatre manager: 'Thank you for this evening, your music was wonderful. Your being here and the message of hope on the basis of God's promises gives us courage. Often we have thought that people in the West have forgotten us. Now we know we are not alone. Lithuania is a tear in God's eye. Please don't let that tear fall into the sand.' This beautiful yet sorrowful picture deeply moved Adrian: 'We felt that wherever we went our role would be saying to the people, 'We are with you, we believe your freedom is a just cause and we identify with you in your struggle and pain. We want to bring God's word, comfort and encouragement into that." The following day saw the 'Alpha And Omega' entourage again on country roads heading for Piga. A telephone conversation told them of tanks, strikes, turmoil, demonstrations, fear of the Black Berets. The TV team engaged to film their concert now had no equipment. Everything was occupied, stolen, or destroyed. Their contact, Maris, said: 'It is your decision whether you come as planned, but if you see any chance, PLEASE come.'

At the Estonian border a hidden guard emerged and waved them through. Coffee and a cassette elicited joy and surprise as they were distributed. Hartmut, however, was brought down to earth by a sinister sight: 'Large piles of firewood had been put up along the border looking like pyres. What kind of fire was this supposed to become? Ermo Jurma, pastor from Tartu, later told me. 'In two days, August 23rd, thousands will go out into the fields and light up fires in memory of the day of fate for the Baltic people when, in 1939, Ribbentropp and Molotov signed the Hitler-Stalin pact which brought again foreign rule to the free republics of Estonia, Lativa and Lithuania. 50 years of unspeakable suffering, deprivation and humiliation." Hartmut continues, 'I got a shiver down my spine. On such a day we were going to sing Christian songs as a German choir. I said 'Ermo, what shall we do?' He replied 'Perhaps it's an occasion for reconciliation between Estonians and Germans."

The reconciliation took place as the evening shadows lengthened and the cold Baltic Sea washed the beach at Parnu.

In the chill air whilst singing in the marketplace they heard 'Gorbachev is alive, Yeltzin is the greatest, the army is split. Is there civil war? Or is it really over and history by now?' At last there were victory celebrations all over the country. What an atmosphere. The tour continued against a dizzying backdrop of unfurling history. At Tallinn they played while Gorbachev gave his hour-long press conference. In Riga crowds barricaded the KGB building to prevent the destruction of the documents of oppression. That night 450 people watched the show as Lenin was deposed by a large crane leaving only a shattered pedestal.

At Liepaja, their concert was the first Christian event outside church walls since the war.

Finally the tour found themselves back in Vilnius, the 700 seat theatre was packed to the doors. Dignitaries and even men wearing smoking jackets were in the crowd. The players' resolution to stay and identify with the people, relayed by television only hours before it was forced off the air, had drawn the crowd. God had brought a message of his timeless love and concern through these self-confessed 'weak vessels'. But as Adrian said, this is logical; it's how He works through frail humanity. God is the God of history and of the future. History cannot just be brushed aside. With the sort of history Eastern Europe has the past has to be dealt with if it's going to be redeemed. It must be handed back to God. 'Alpha And Omega' seeks to make that message very clear, that in God's hands history can be redeemed. Also we wanted to bring to the Lithuanian and Estonian people the vital message that Jesus is Lord of all creation, that there will be a day when we see justice, peace and righteousness on this earth for no other reason than that Jesus is King. His authority and rule will be flowing throughout the world. This is the hope to which we are pointing, not the ideology which says each group has an absolute right to its own part of the world. We have an absolute right to develop all our cultures and languages. We must have a place to do that to enjoy that freedom.
Ultimately the ownership of the land is God's.

'What I hope we left with our audiences is a balance to the nationalistic spirit which is so alive in Eastern Europe. I think this balance is vital because of the incredible rate of change in our world. We are moving towards that day when ownership of the land under God's authority will be fully established. We won't lose our cultural identity but will lose our possessiveness and our alienation of other people. We will welcome strangers into our homes. We will welcome foreigners into our land and send them away rejoicing at what they've learnt of Gods' love through their hosts. We need a Godly justice and righteousness, to develop a leadership that is actually making its decisions with reference to the laws of God. You really can make political decisions with that in mind. It's not a fantasyland, not just a world of fanciful thinking that's irrelevant in 1991. It's real. You can make decisions, protect minorities, the vulnerable the weak. You can learn from history.' I once met a man at the top of a Midlands tower block. He was Latvian. His entire family had died in Siberia during the war. He said 'I don't think God likes me.' Let's praise God that a middle-aged English pianist, a sax player, a dancer, two Dutch technicians and thirty young East German singers gave thousands of this man's people a different message. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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