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U.S. Military Band Marches on Moscow

Times Staff Writer

When someone called to strike up a stirring military march for a parade through central Moscow, hardly anyone ever imagined it would be “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Or that the Stars and Stripes itself, hoisted aloft by an Army sergeant, would lead the U.S. Army Europe Band up the Russian capital’s main thoroughfare, past cheering crowds, to greet a train full of Russian war veterans.

“I’ve met every president. I’ve met hundreds of kings and queens. But marching through Moscow behind three of my soldiers carrying the American flag is pretty much the highlight of my career,” said Lt. Col. Thomas H. Palmatier, commander of the Army band, which came here along with President Bush and other U.S. officials to help mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

“We played inside the Kremlin walls! We played ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ on the streets of Moscow! It was a pretty emotional experience,” Palmatier said.

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Military bands from France, Britain and Russia also marched in Sunday’s opening parade, part of an international celebration that, in Russia, couldn’t help but be dominated by the stirring martial music that Russians have always linked with their nation’s stature as a global power.

With the arrival of more than 50 world leaders, there are military bands outfitted in dress greens and marching caps on major street corners and in public parks. Tonight marks the keynote performance of the Moscow International Festival of Brass Music, featuring orchestras from the Russian, U.S., British and French armies, navies and air forces.

“Military music is incredibly important for Russians, because military music is a component of the Russian army, and the army has always played a crucially important role in protecting Russia’s great statehood and in making it a powerful nation,” Col. Valery Khalilov, chief military conductor of Russia, said as he prepared for a rehearsal.

There is a Russian military band associated with nearly every major national endeavor, more than 300 in all, including the Exemplary Orchestra of the Border Troops of the Federal Security Service; the Military Brass Orchestra of the Baikonur Spacedrome of the Space Troops; and a band whose name may be as long as some of its pieces: the Military Orchestra of the Hero of the Soviet Union S.K. Timoshenko Military University of Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense.

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On Sunday, though, it was the U.S. Army that was the big crowd pleaser in central Moscow. Though it wasn’t the first performance by an American military band in Russia, it marked the first time such an ensemble has played inside the Kremlin, or marched down the streets of Moscow behind the American flag. Enthusiastic onlookers applauded, hung over balconies and stopped members of the band to take photos.

“The crowd seemed overjoyed to see us,” said Sgt. Daniel Halsey, a 32-year-old New York native who carried the American flag, flanked by a two-member color guard. “People in the street were coming up to us. I personally had over 100 pictures taken of me with the flag, by everybody from vets to young children.”

Spc. Yevgeny Levin is a Moscow-area native who emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, became an American citizen, joined the Army and came back playing American marching tunes on the streets of his hometown. He said he still felt stirred by the sounds of the old Russian martial music, such as Vasily Agapkin’s lush and melodic “Farewell to Slavianka,” which will be played jointly by all the bands as a finale tonight.

“Of course, I enjoyed playing music I have known from my childhood. It’s so much more natural to play something you’ve known your entire life,” Levin said. “And 15 years ago, I wouldn’t imagine I would be in a parade in an American uniform, marching down Tverskaya Street and performing inside the Kremlin.”

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The U.S. Army band plans to perform an excerpt from Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and a medley of American big band tunes, including “Take the A Train” and “In the Mood.”

“There certainly is a very different style between the American bands and the Russian bands,” Palmatier said. “The sounds of the bands reflect their societies and their culture. With the Americans, it’s very much a reflection of our melting pot. You hear the jazz influence.... With the Russians, just overwhelmingly, it’s the Slavic might.”

Russia traces the official roots of its military bands to Peter the Great in 1711, and to 19th century composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was an inspector of the naval orchestras.

“This music has always helped organize the spirit of the soldiers in battle, and after the battle is over, it has entertained them,” said Vladimir Mikhailov, spokesman for the Russian Army Band.

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The Russian band warmed up Sunday with “The Holy War,” a deafening call to arms against the German forces of World War II: “Rise up, great country/ Rise up for mortal combat/ Against the dark fascist force,/ Against the damned horde!”

“Peter the Great made the military orchestras official,” said Khalilov, the chief conductor. “He understood the importance of the rituals of military units.”

Not only to the troops that march to battle, but to those who send them.

On Sunday, the bands gathered at the end of their parade at the Belorusky train station, greeting a steam locomotive that was a replica of the one that brought victorious troops home at the end of the war in 1945. A large picture of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin stood at the front of the train, just as it did all those years before. Girls in pretty pastel dresses handed out flowers to the arriving veterans.

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And the band played “Farewell to Slavianka.”

“The Americans were here, but our orchestra was considerably more loud and spectacular,” said Sergei Dmitriyev, a 26-year-old security guard who watched the scene unfold.

“When you hear the Slavianka march, it fills you with a lot of emotion, and there’s a bit of mourning to it,” he said.

“Having the Americans there at the same time, I felt kind of sad and betrayed,” he said. “But I guess it’s OK. They were our allies, after all.”

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