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Kiev Orchestra Celebrates the Classics

After it was banned for 70 years, Western and sacred music is all the rage in the Ukraine

Ukrainian soprano Eugenia Maximova will never forget the time she sang "Ave Maria" in concert. It was 1963 and sacred music - many pieces of which are considered among the world's classics - was generally banned from the Soviet Union, never mind allowed to be performed.

But that time they made an exception.

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"Neither the audience nor the KGB knew Latin," so officials felt the lyrics would not be a threat, Maximova says.

Today, a few years after perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Maximova is able to sing all the sacred and Western music she wants, something she is doing a lot of as a member of the Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The orchestra is led by American conductor Roger McMurrin, and it is the first privately funded professional orchestra in Ukraine.

In a nation that loves classical and especially choral music - there are 50 professional orchestras and six choruses in Ukraine - the Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus plays to near-sellout crowds in the city's ornate concert halls.

The public couldn't be more excited to be hearing great classic works for the first time, music that was banned here for 70 years.

It all started in 1992 when McMurrin was invited to Kiev to produce a Christmas concert of Handel's "Messiah." He put out a call for musicians and enough talent showed up. There was just one problem.

"Nobody had ever heard of Handel's 'Messiah,' " Maximova explains. "It was shocking music."

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But it was music they loved. After weeks of rehearsals, Maximova says she and others were worried they would ruin the piece because it was so completely new to them.

The group brought the house down. Some musicians wept.

"I can't explain the magic of the concert," McMurrin says. At the time, he had 30 years of conducting behind him and a solid position as music director of the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla.

Three American conductors

Within a year he would be back in Kiev, this time with his wife, Diane, and son, Matthew, at his side and 10 years worth of luggage.

"Nothing in my work appeared significant next to Kiev," he says.

McMurrin is one of three American conductors in Ukraine. They are here, McMurrin explains, because Western and sacred music is all the rage, yet a generation of Ukrainian conductors do not know the music or the context in which the spiritual lyrics were written.

McMurrin "understands the music and ideas that come from the Bible," says singer Alexander Donskoy.

Many Ukrainian musicians are struggling to make ends meet in the nation's difficult economy, but they speak excitedly about the music that is making its way to Ukraine from the West after 70 years.

"Now, I give each note more. It is a joy to sing," says soprano Valentina Yerichek.

Since its start in 1993, the orchestra has performed pieces by Brahms, Beethoven, Menotti, Verdi, Mendelssohn, and Copland. During a 1996 tour of the United States, it played American classics like Gershwin's "Summertime." Another tour is planned for 1998.

When Maximova first sang the Messiah, "I thought there could be nothing better. But then, we learned something new and it is better," she says of Bach's B-minor Mass.

But more than the music is new to McMurrin's musicians. McMurrin's relaxed "and sometimes zany" way of conducting is different from the serious style typical of most Ukrainian conductors, Maximova says.

"The conductors were very strict," she says and there was a tendency for them not to show their feelings. McMurrin laughs and cries easily, and is eager to hug friends. He also sometimes walks on his hands and performs tricks with his ties to encourage musicians to relax during rehearsals and recording sessions.

He speaks glowingly of them. "Everyone should experience Roger's leadership," Maximova says. McMurrin received an official thanks from the Ministry of Culture in 1996 for his work in Ukraine.

Unofficially, Ukrainian conductors and musicians seek him out in order to listen to his music collection and to borrow his music.

Religion is going through a revival in Ukraine, and McMurrin felt compelled to get involved. He became an ordained ecumenical minister and has baptized most of his 170 musicians.

"If you know something and everybody else knows nothing of it, you have a job to do," he says. McMurrin preaches weekly, afterward inviting everyone back to his place for an old-fashioned church supper.

Only under extraordinary circumstances was sacred music performed in Ukraine during the Soviet years before perestroika. All music had to be approved by the local leaders of the Communist Party before being performed, says Maximova, a former choral director. Officials regularly sent her lists of "forbidden music," showing the composer and country of origin, which she was supposed to abide by.

In addition to music with religious lyrics, Western popular music including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd was banned.

Sacred music now performed

In terms of sacred music, censors would only allow a piece into the country after it was stripped of any spiritual verses, according to Edward Senko, orchestra manager.

"At that time I didn't think about it, I just loved the music," Maximova says of having her repertoire limited by Soviet officials.

The only sacred pieces officials tolerated were the requiems by Mozart and Verdi, which were in Latin, according to McMurrin.

Today, Ukrainian musicians are free to perform what they like, but economically things are much tougher. The country is still in the process of switching from a communist to a capitalist system, and most businesses remain government-run and owned. The government has been unable to adequately support many of its businesses and the arts.

The Soviet Union's renowned support of music training and schools is quickly deteriorating in Ukraine. The government cannot afford to pay teachers and most parents cannot afford tuition. "The arts are going to suffer," McMurrin says.

Many workers and the elderly go for months without paychecks, which is the situation of most musicians because all the orchestra's except McMurrin's are state funded.

To make ends meet, most of McMurrin's musicians also work for state-run orchestras, even though the pay is irregular. Others do what many Ukrainians do: sell items such as cigarettes, flowers, and sundries on the street, Ukraine's black market.

Andre Liashko, a percussionist, works at the Opera House, where he has been paid late many times. Liashko simply doesn't pay his rent or utilities if he doesn't get paid. During the Soviet era, his musical training was covered, and he was provided a stipend and a full-time job. Now, like many talented, young Ukrainian musicians, he pines to leave.

McMurrin pays his musicians regularly, but to help them further, he has hired many to help with fund-raising and office work. But none of these experiences prepared him for the challenge of producing concerts in Kiev.

"You can't book a hall more than two or three weeks ahead of time," he says.

But even given the scheduling and money problems here, McMurrin is committed to staying for at least 10 years. "The West just doesn't recognize the gold mine of talent that exists here," he says.

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