“The name ‘Ensemble XXI Moscow’ reflects the wish that barriers between musicians everywhere will be broken down in the 21st Century.” Ensemble XXI in Finland

This mission statement puzzles many. What barriers? Where, When and How are there such barriers? Is this merely a magnanimous sounding but meaningless explanation for the title ‘Ensemble XXI Moscow’ which could perhaps be just a racy, marketing name for an orchestra founded a bit more than a decade before a new Millenium?

In fact the name ‘Ensemble XXI Moscow’ reflects exactly the role, vision and struggle of the orchestra from its very foundation to its existence today.

When Lygia O’Riordan and Pia Siirala studied in the 1980’s at the world renowned Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory they discovered an institution that was divided into two faculties – one for Soviet Students and one for foreign students ( the same system is still in place today). Apart from all the students' instrumental or conducting lessons with the world famous Professors, all other lessons were held separately whether in theory or in history. In the words of Kipling “East is East and West is West and never the two shall meet”. The system went so far as to even having two separate orchestras -one for Soviet students and one for foreigners.

The irony was that the system broke down as all students who were not from Moscow (whether from abroad or from other parts of the USSR) were all housed under one roof –in the Conservatory’s dormitory on Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa. Any attempt to keep these young Nationals away from each other could never have succeeded as foreigners had Soviet roommates. This had been approved by the Communist party so that foreigners could be “watched” by loyal communist youths. Whilst there were some Soviet students who, in the interest of their careers, avidly did so; for the most part life long friendships developed between foreigners and Soviet students. Thus the system broke down.

When Pia and Lygia enthusiastically approached the foreign students’ Dean’s office about starting a multi-cultural orchestra in the student dormitory to explore and perform the great repertoire for string orchestra, the message that was delivered was in no uncertain terms. Multi cultural yes but with no Soviet students involved. Expulsion from the Conservatory would be the price of disobedience and for a foolish Soviet student even worse.

So a ”multi cultured’’ orchestra was founded in 1986 in the USSR’s capital with an Irish Ensemble XXI members from Ireland, Finland, Vietnam and Russiaconductor, a Finnish leader and musicians from China, Colombia, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, East Germany, Latin America, Poland, Vietnam and Yugoslavia but with no Soviet students. All went smoothly until the night before a performance in a Western Embassy when the Colombian double bassist fell ill. This, with a programme that included Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, was a disaster. There were no other foreign double bassists. As Lygia tore her hair out, there was a knock on her door. A Soviet double bassist presented himself as the Colombian’s roommate. “I have heard of your predicament but you know I can help because I know all of the programme that you are going to play.” As Lygia described it later: ’’At one moment I looked at him as the miraculous answer to our plight but in the next realised that there was no way I could get him, as a Soviet student, into a western Embassy past gates manned by the KGB and that following the concert havoc would Ensemble XXI on bikes in Finland ensue for both him and all the foreigners in the orchestra. I lied and told him that much as I was obliged to him for his generous offer, I had already resolved the problem and found someone who could play with us. He looked at me straight in the eye and told me that he didn’t believe me and that I wasn’t taking him because he was a Soviet’. A blow in the face couldn’t have been a greater shock. In one moment I realised that I was accepting this terrible apartheid between us. I sat down in complete shock and told him that he was right. I had lied to him but that even if I was willing to risk him playing with us what would happen to him and finally, how on earth could I get him into the Embassy past the KGB?  He answered that regarding the first two points he was willing to risk if I was and regarding the final point, if the first two were agreed to this could be resolved if we really wanted it to be. Stunned, I said that if he was ready to risk so was I.’’ Ultimately Lygia found her brother’s Interrail pass that she had accidentally kept after a recent train journey through Europe. After glueing the double bassist’s photo on to it, an Irish law student at Tuebingen University got into a Western Embassy to play the double bass the next night!

After this Lygia and Pia let it be known through the double bassist that their orchestra’s doors were open to any Soviet student willing to take the risk along with them. The demand was overwhelming and many Soviet students auditioned. This resulted in long term harassment from the Conservatory which only ended under its newly appointed Rector who was approached by Lygia’s Professor, the great Russian Conductor Gennadij Rozhdestvensky, to organize a festival with Ensemble XXI Moscow under his baton and which was preceded by the Rector’s public acknowledgment of the orchestra’s ground breaking role on the International music scene.

When in 1988 they decided to ’go professional’ the name “Ensemble XXI Moscow’’ was chosen to reflect barriers being broken down in the future etween musicians everywhere. Over the years the barriers have been so concrete. Soviet musicians needed ‘’foreign travel passports’’ to go abroad. Even when western Embassies were ready to issue visas, the Soviet members were harassed, bullied and threatened by their local district passport offices when applying for these. The foreigners have been in equally threatening situations. As recently as 1997 the orchestra’s tour to Australia (including a concert in the Sydney Opera House) was cancelled because the Foreign Student’s office threatened the orchestra’s Ensemble XXI in Boshoi Zal in Moscow, 2002Vietnamese members that if they continued playing with the orchestra, not only would their scholarships be cancelled but that they would be sent back to Vietnam in disgrace. Only in late 2002 was a ban lifted at the Conservatory preventing the orchestra from playing in the Great Hall of the Conservatory. Ensemble XXI Moscow’s present plans to include North Korea in it’s “Pacific Rim Music Festival’’ as well as to tour to Cuba bear witness to its dedication to breaking down ‘’barriers between musicians everywhere in the 21st Century.’’

To this day the Vietnamese members of the orchestra are always subjected to lengthy delays in being granted visas as opposed to any of the other nationalities in the orchestra.

Despite the orchestra’s international commitments in the world’s great concert halls and cultural centres, Ensemble XXI Moscow is passionate about its own ‘’Pacific Rim Music Festival” with its four goals to

  • Ensemble XXI in a helicopter in the Russian Arctic CircleBring music to remote areas where performances with professional musicians do not otherwise take place.

  • Involve local amateur groups in joint performances (such as last year’s performance of the complete Messiah on Australia’s Sapphire Coast with local choirs joined by the orchestra and soloists from the Australian and Boston opera companies)

  • School concerts where children not only listen to the orchestra but even have the opportunity of conducting it.

  • Involving the indigenous peoples in each country in joint performances promoting goodwill amongst different races.

Pia Siirala giving a lesson on SakhalinEnsemble XXI Moscow was founded so that musicians could play chamber music together. Circumstances forced it to make a stand against several forms of tyranny. The orchestra’s role is to play performances of chamber music upon which it must be judged first and foremost. Nevertheless, as music is a universal language, it has a duty and indeed is bound Ensemble XXI playing in the Arctic Circle to take up the challenges created by forces that do not share this vision and to stand side by side with those people that do. Whether it is playing in politically sensitive areas or travelling to remote regions of the world or to the economically suffering regions of Russia which enjoyed a rich cultural life in Soviet times or indeed to playing free for pensioners in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the orchestra strives to carry out the responsibility of holding the name: Ensemble XXI Moscow.