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August 30, 2003
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World Sat, Aug 30, 03


Dublin-born conductor brings solace to Russian island
By Dan McLaughlin


RUSSIA: A young Irishwoman has made her mark in the remote Pacific island of Sakhalin, which Chekhov called 'the epitome of hell'. She talked to Dan McLaughlin in Moscow

To the people of a remote sliver of land off Russia's Pacific coast, an Irishwoman's groundbreaking orchestra has provided solace in a week of tragedy.

When the governor of Sakhalin island and a dozen senior officials died in a helicopter crash, it was to the familiar music of Lygia O'Riordan's Ensemble XXI orchestra that locals turned for support.

"They have been showing one of our concerts on television since the helicopter disappeared," Ms O'Riordan said. "It is a great honour, and a sign that we have become a part of the community out there."

Ms O'Riordan was speaking in Moscow on her way back to Sakhalin, a sea-lashed former gulag seven time zones east of the Russian capital, where in 1997 Ensemble XXI became the first foreign orchestra ever to play.

"People had a wonderful musical education in the Soviet Union, and the best orchestras used to tour the whole country, even the remote towns," the conductor said.

"But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the tours - when we arrived on Sakhalin an orchestra hadn't played there for 10 years." It was the start of an intense relationship between Ms O'Riordan and Sakhalin, an island described in the 1890s by Chekhov as "the epitome of hell".

Infamous for its labour camps, its remoteness and the scene of fierce fighting between the Russians and Japanese in 1905, Sakhalin is now being flooded with Western oilmen eager for its huge reserves of gas and "black gold".

"The island has always felt free-spirited, and the oil money has brought a new optimism among the young," Ms O'Riordan said, in the basement of the Moscow church where her orchestra is based.

"But the money and foreigners have also increased problems, like prostitution, on Sakhalin, and that's the kind of social issue we can try and address through the orchestra . . . We have a duty to go into the community and confront its problems. As artists, that's our role - we musn't be afraid, otherwise there's no point doing what we do."

Ms O'Riordan's biography admits few obstacles.

Born in Dublin, from the age of three months she travelled around the world with her New Zealand-born actress mother and her father, an Irish ambassador from Ennis, Co Clare.

At the height of the Cold War she studied to be a conductor in Hungary, from where many of her East European friends dreamed of going to Moscow to study at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

On holiday in Copenhagen in 1984, where her father was posted, Ms O'Riordan mentioned the chance of studying in the Soviet Union to her mother. It was a time when cultural links between Dublin and Moscow were practically non-existent.

"'Impossible!' my mother said. But that night she found herself sitting next to the Soviet ambassador to Denmark at dinner, and she mentioned our conversation. The next day I went to the Soviet embassy and there was a visa waiting for me."

Braving accusations of espionage from the bewildered Irish embassy and the hide-bound retainers of the Conservatory, she successfully auditioned in Moscow for conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

Life with Rozhdestvensky at the Conservatory was to shape Ms O'Riordan's future.

Upon graduation, she committed herself to Russia, founding Ensemble XXI in 1989 with a friend at the Conservatory, Finnish violinist Ms Pia Siirala.

It was the first independent orchestra in Soviet history, and gave local and foreign musicians the chance to work together professionally for the first time.

As well as touring much of Europe, including Ireland, Ensemble XXI has played Mozart and Vivaldi to nomads in the Russian Arctic, visited Sakhalin three times, and taken three of the island's children to Australia to sing at the first Pacific Rim Music Festival.

"We are a world-class orchestra, and the choirs on Sakhalin are world-class, too," Ms O'Riordan said. "And to me it's much more rewarding to do what we do - and see the face of someone hearing Mozart for the first time, for example - than to play at Carnegie Hall." The orchestra has lived on a shoestring since 1998, when most corporate sponsors fled Russia or tightened their budgets after a devastating financial crash.

She praises the Australian and New Zealand embassies for helping her effort, but lambastes the Irish community here for ignoring her requests for help.

The Irish Times

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