Kit Crissey: A Life of Education and Music
By Laura Kincaid
A few times a year, a Concert Hall at Shaare Shamayim in Philadelphia fills with chatter in Russian. By the door, an older gentleman in glasses greets everyone with a kind smile. He speaks warmly to the audience with familiarity and ease. Soon music drifts through the room, maybe Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky. Everyone listens, letting the music bring them together.
The Crissey Concerts Series features local immigrant musicians from the former Soviet Union and is free to the public. The gentleman in glasses is Harrington “Kit” Crissey, the man who organizes these concerts. He didn’t set out to organize concerts that have become a tradition for the Russian-speaking community of Northeast Philadelphia. Kit is not a professional musician or event organizer.
Kit is a teacher. At 27, he found a calling in teaching ESL, English as a Second Language. He received a master’s degree from Temple University and began teaching professionally in 1974 though the university’s Intensive English Language Program for Foreign Adults. Kit is retired now but teaches part-time. “And the first Russian-speaking student I ever had was in 1976,” Professor Crissey recalls. He kept taking on more Russian-speaking students, all immigrants from various republics of the Soviet Union. They invited him into their homes and showed him hospitality. “It burgeoned from there, and now I know hundreds of Russians living in Philadelphia,” Kit explains.
In 1988, he became involved in the Leningrad-Philadelphia Sister City Project through a friend. The Sister Cities organization connects cities internationally to exchange culture and trade. Many thought Leningrad would be an excellent Sister City for Philadelphia. “I thought it would be nice to organize a concert to help gain support,” Kit says, “and highlight the musical connections between Philadelphia and Leningrad.”
Mr. Crissey always possessed a passion for classical music. He played the French horn as a child. Later he attended the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester so he could study horn under a professional. He knew quite a few conservatory-trained musicians through his teaching, including a composer and pianist from Leningrad who lived in Philadelphia.
In the fall of 1988, Kit held a concert featuring musicians who immigrated from the former Soviet Union at the Fleisher Art Memorial. While Leningrad never became Philadelphia’s Sister City, the concert was a success. “Lo and behold, I had a full house,” Kit remembers. “I was very heartened by this, so I did a couple more.”
He went on to organize concerts for contemporary composers from Philadelphia, started the Eastman Alumni Concerts, featuring Eastman alumni composers and musicians. “As someone very interested in classical music,” Kit explains, “I enjoy the planning and working with the musicians. I know a lot of the repertoire and enjoy it. For the repertoire I don't know, I learn new pieces.”
Kit eventually returned to the community of friends he met through teaching. “I began meeting more and more immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were conservatory-trained, and I decided to help them,” he says. “I began to give them recitals or what I call potpourri concerts where I had many musicians on the same program.”
For ten years, Kit held his concerts in St. Joseph University's Chapel, located on the college’s campus in West Philadelphia. Most of his audience came from the Russian-speaking community in Northeast Philadelphia, making the trek across town for Kit’s programs. “I think they were attracted to the beauty of the chapel, the good acoustics,” Kit says, “and the fact that their countrymen were playing.”
“This year will be the end of my 31st season. I do this as a hobby,” he notes. He keeps the concerts free through not only his generosity but the generosity of the whole community. Kit finds free venues, and the musicians donate their talents. Local Russian language newspapers advertise the concerts for no charge. Kit pays for the thoughtful details: piano tuning, programs, letters to those without email access, and carnations for the performers: he and his wife hand out the extras to any ladies and children in the audience.
Being a former adjunct at St. Joseph’s, he used the campus chapel for free. However, in April 2018, St. Joseph's informed Kit that it would cost $300 an hour to use the chapel. “I just don't have that kind of money,” Kit comments. “I wasn't born into a rich family.” Luckily, Kit found a new space at the DG Cultural Center and later the Shaare Shamayim Synagogue. “Occasionally, I'll be given a gift by a donor,” Kit explains, “but I never ask for money from anybody, I never go looking for donations, I never apply for grants. I just keep it a hobby.”
Kit gives back to those that make his hobby possible, especially the musicians. He and his wife occasionally host parties for the musicians after performances. “It's a way to do good,” Kit says, “to help these people and get them in touch with not only members of the Russian-speaking community in the audience but also with people like Mikhail Zorich, who has employed them for paid concerts.”
Mikhail Zorich is Project Director of the Multicultural Arts Exchange, or MAE, a nonprofit that produces and promotes performing arts events in Northeast Philadelphia. Several of Crissey’s performers have been featured in MAE concerts, and the Crissey Concerts are now an integral part of the #maeseason
“I've made a lot of nice friends from doing this,” Kit reflects. He keeps making new ones. This past fall, Kit waited with his wife in a bank. A young man came out, a bank officer, and called his wife’s name, “Ms. Sergeeva?” Kit’s wife is Russian, and most Americans mispronounce her name. However, this man had spoken her name perfectly. During the meeting, they asked, "Do you have any connection to the Russian-speaking community? You pronounced her name correctly."
He replied, "Yes, my name is Alexander Yatsenko, and I’m from Kiev, Ukraine." He studied piano at the Kiev Conservatory and came to America to continue studying piano at Temple University’s school of music under Alexander Fiorillo, who had studied with the Ukrainian American pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
"Gee, are you still practicing?" Kit asked.
"Yes, I practice,” Alexander said. “My technique is still pretty good."
"Well, would you like to perform at one of my concerts?"
Come February 23rd. Alexander will perform in the next Crissey Concert. Kit will be there, welcoming friends with a warm smile.