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
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
"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
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
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
Life with Rozhdestvensky at the Conservatory was to shape Ms
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
"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