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Published: Friday, 11/7/2003

Singer celebrates Russian culture

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC
Nikolai Massenkoff:  I had a song that had to be sung, a need to express myself and my heritage. Nikolai Massenkoff: I had a song that had to be sung, a need to express myself and my heritage.
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Life unfolds in endless variations. Consider Nikolai Massenkoff, who was born in Tientsin, China, spent his early childhood in a Shanghai orphanage, and came of age in San Francisco. He has made a career performing Russian folk music.

“Destiny throws you on distant shores. If everything had been peaceful - no revolutions or oppression - I would still be in Russia,” Massenkoff said last week from California.

“My mother had to move out of Russia with the rest of the White Russians after the revolution of 1917. So, I was brought up in a Russian community in China. But even though I was in China, I was immersed in a Russian environment with no other influences,” said Massenkoff, who is now in his late 50s.

The Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival performs Sunday afternoon at the Franciscan Theatre and Conference Center of Lourdes College.

With thousands of other expatriots, Massenkoff s family had settled in Tientsin. When communists came to power in China, Massenkoff joined thousands of other children at a Russian Orthodox orphanage in Shanghai. From there, he was taken to the Philippines and, at age 12, San Francisco.

Despite spending years in China, Massenkoff never left the umbrella of Russian culture. When he arrived in America, he spoke only Russian.

He admits that it may seem unusual to celebrate the culture of a place he has never lived.

“By the time I came to the United States my spiritual and cultural life was already set. And it was strengthened, rather than weakened, by being in another culture. I had a strong desire to express myself and found the arts therapeutic. They helped me learn more about myself,” he said.

Massenkoff, a baritone, studied classical music in college then went on to a brief opera career in Germany before returning to the United States.

Once back, he sought out his roots.

“I had a song that had to be sung, a need to express myself and my heritage, so I decided to reach out with my message. I looked around and saw Latino ensembles and Chinese groups, but I didn t see any Russian ones,” he said.

“We began with the old melodies that I grew up with, and found that people off the street enjoyed them. I found that it s possible to be yourself and be accepted.”

The Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival presents a program of folk music and dance at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Franciscan Theatre and Conference Center of Lourdes College, 6832 Convent Blvd., Sylvania. Tickets are $30, $28 for seniors, and $15 for children 15 and under. Information: 419-824-3999.



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