An account by Conductor Lygia O'Riordan

’When we my concertmaster and I were invited back to Sakhalin to give master classes, we were anxious that we would be able to travel right around part of the island as opposed to staying only in the main city, Yuzhno Sakhalinsk. One of the places that we were invited to teach in was the music college in the town of Nevelsk which is a long journey by the sea road. As our transport was looked after by a foreign company on the island we were able to take the so called safer and shorter "police route" reserved for "the authorities" cutting through the centre of the island in the added advantage of an excellent 4WD.

Well you could have fooled me about "the safer route" We travelled for  hours over treacherous terrain to Nevelsk, suddenly encountering craters in the road whilst on either side there would be a sheer drop into the valley!

We arrived to a very warm welcome at the college where very tea, sandwiches and cakes awaited us. Pia and I were rather surprised, however, when a teacher came with us to the loos bearing a huge bucket of water. It seemed that the town's residents had been without water for weeks and weeks and only one administrative building had water where the teachers had gone armed with buckets for our visit. I found this grim situation in complete contrast with the natural beauty of the place (not counting the run down housing) when from the classroom windows we spotted dozens of sea lions basking on the peninsula.

Under these conditions we were presented a programme listing rather difficult pieces for string ensemble. I must admit that we really doubted that the children could carry such a programme off. They began their performance. We were treated to playing of such musicality carried out with such aplomb. We almost gasped. Again this is Russia. No matter what the hardship, the music will sound out. Here in Nevelsk, which to me, coming from Ireland, seemed to be the end of the earth, the 8 to 14 year old children played with aplomb, style and technique. After this a little boy played a violin concerto by Spohr so beautifully. After we had worked with him we said that we would have loved to invite him to the final concert of the master classes in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

We left with such incredible feelings that fuelled us for the frightful journey back in the dark. Unbeknown to us that night, the little boy and his parents got into their little car and travelled through the night to us (on the truly horrendous normal route) after which he played a note perfect performance. He then got back into the car so that his parents would be back at work in Nevelsk in time. There are so many stories like this on Sakhalin.

Recently when we were there the Energy workers had all been on strike for months because of lack of pay. As a result there was no water or electricity for up to 24 hours a day on many occasions. Sometimes there was water for 2 hours a day but you never knew when it would come on. People would invite us for dinner and just as they were about to serve, the electricity would turn off. Yet even then they would cope by cooking on a small camping flame run by gas and we would eat by candlelight. Everywhere there were buckets of water collected and quickly refilled every time there was half an hour of water. People died in hospitals in the middle of operations when the energy was switched off as there was no back-up system. When we taught in the Music College the student’s orchestra had, for every musician, another student who would stand behind them holding a candle whilst we coached them for three hours.

The lights turned off before the second half of a concert where we were to play by popular demand, Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night". There was a wail from the audience. After an hour and a half the lights came back on. As I walked on to the stage, I was stunned to see that there was not a single empty seat despite the freezing conditions. I don't think that we could ever play Schoenberg better than that night.’

Sakhalin    on Sakhalin Pacific Rim Music Festival 2003, 2004