“Surely you will summon nations you know not... for He has endowed you with splendour.”Isaiah, 55:5 “You’ll love Ukraine. It’s like riding the rapids on a rubber raft. You never know what to expect. You just hold on and pray.”
George McCammon
oger McMurrin, an American of Scottish descent, has been living in Ukraine for the past six years, conducting a Ukrainian symphony orchestra and choir. The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (KSOC) of about 200 musicians, is the only private choral-orchestral musical group in Ukraine. Founded in 1993 by Mr McMurrin, the group has premiered many classical masterpieces performing in Kyiv at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Hall of the Philharmonic Society, the National Academy of Music, the House of Organ and Chamber Music, and other prestigious halls.
The KSOC has been on two tours of the USA, visiting many cities in many states, giving dozens of performances, and bringing to the American concert halls rich musical heritage of American, Ukrainian, Russian and world classics.
Roger McMurrin, a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University, began his musical career as an educator, teaching vocal music at a high school in Xenia, Ohio. After he earned a Master’s degree at Ohio State University, he got a job of an instructor at a college where he taught music. He studied conducting and choral technique with brilliant teachers.
In the seventies, Roger McMurrin worked as Director of Music of Presbyterian Churches in Florida and in Texas, where he developed an extensive choir program, featuring major choral works and artists of various music styles. His choirs toured widely in Europe and the Orient. In the eighties McMurrin devoted a lot of his time and energies to religious broadcasting, continuing at the same time to develop new musical programs. He took his choirs, both boys’ and adults’, on tours in Europe, USA and Canada. In 1983, his choir sang at Notre Dame in Paris. His involvement with various activities of the Presbyterian Church continued into the nineties.
In 1992, a friend of his, George McCammon, an Episcopal priest, invited Roger McMurrin to visit him in Kyiv and try to launch a program of religious music. McMurrin, together with his wife Diane and younger son Matthew, did go, though they had very little knowledge of Ukraine and did not know what kind of living and working conditions to expect there. Two months later the McMurrins premiered Handel’s Messiah with Ukrainian musicians. They returned to the States but a few months later the McMurrins felt it was a call of God to go back to Ukraine with a mission, both musical and religious. In 1993 the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was founded. A church (Church of the Holy Trinity) was established where Roger McMurrin was ordained for the Christian ministry.
McMurrin’s Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are welcome performers at all the major halls of Kyiv; the Orchestra and Chorus make regular appearances on television. As a conductor, Roger McMurrin’s extensive orchestra and choral masterpieces include works of Brahms, Mozart, Verdi, Faure, Durufle, Poulenc, Rutter, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Barber, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland, Berlioz, Rakhmaninov, Leontovych, Bortnyansky. Mr McMurrin is president of Music Mission Kyiv, a charitable non-profit organization which raises funds to support the music enterprise in Ukraine. McMurrin’s Orchestra and Chorus have released eight CD’s with their music recorded in Ukraine and made in the USA and Canada. Roger McMurrin is often invited to speak on television on various topics which include Christianity and the arts; economics and politics; the message of his music, plus a lot more. Roger McMurrin regards it as his duty to be involved in charity work too, helping the elderly, orphanages, musicians in dire straits. His humanitarian work has gained him a high esteem in Ukraine.
This much (or this little) I learned about the man I was going to interview from a colourful brochure I’d picked from an advertising agent. On many occasions in the past few years, I saw posters advertising performances of “Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus” conducted by Roger McMurrin but I must admit I’ve never made it a point to go to one of their concerts. Now, after I’ve talked to the conductor, I’ll make it a point to go and see them perform. If I’m lucky enough to buy a ticket. They always perform to full houses.
When I was on my way to the interview, frankly I had no idea what to expect. The brochure I had read impressed me duly but, first, advertisements are not always the best way of getting information you want to obtain, and, second, if everything it said was true, it was just a dry list of facts.

Charity dinner.
I liked the photographs of Mr McMurrin and his wife that appeared in the brochure alongside the text. There was something in their faces that seemed to say: We are not posing, we are like this in real life. And there was openness, warmth and benevolence in their expressions.
Following the directions given to me, I found McMurrins’ apartment on the second floor of an old but by Ukrainian standards more or less well kept building. The impressively tall door displayed two brass digits “11” and when I reached out to push the doorbell button, I saw that the door was slightly ajar. Through the crack I could even get a glimpse of a hall inside. It was a very unusual sight — these days the doors in Ukraine are kept carefully shut, heavily locked, and even bolted. I nevertheless gave two short rings but the door was not answered. Instead, an inviting voice came from within, encouraging me to enter: “Come in, the Door’s opened!” Enter I did, and found myself in a spacious room. Desks, sofas, armchairs - the big room with a very high ceiling looked a cross between an elegant office with a bohemian touch and a cheerful living room with lots of pictures and very beautiful photographs on the walls. There were several people, men and women, in the room, young and not so young. And they were not loitering idly but were definitely occupied with doing something important and necessary. I was politely asked to introduce myself. I stated the purpose of my visit and while I was taking off my coat, two or three more people appeared in the room. One of them turned out to be the Maestro. Casually dressed, gray-haired, with the friendliest of smiles, Roger McMurrin is one of those rare personalities for whom you feel an instantaneous liking. Saying: “Let’s go to the kitchen, probably it’s the only place now in this apartment where, hopefully, we’ll not be interrupted too much,” he led the way. When we were seated at a table (the kitchen, with flowers everywhere, was a nicely furnished room, conducive to conducting a pleasant conversation rather than a place for just cooking and having a meal), with no preliminaries I was told so much that my head began to spin. I was overwhelmed. All the dry facts I’d learned from the brochure began to bloom with flowers of emotion. Roger McMurrin is indeed a remarkable man. In a very short time, in 1992 and then in 1993, he brought together a group of excellent musicians with whom he premiered a great many pieces of classical and modern music that had never been performed in Kyiv before. I could hardly believe it. Imagine: you go to a country of which you know virtually nothing, and which you can’t find even on your map; you know only one person and his family at the place where you go to; you arrive with no one to meet you (the friend went to the wrong platform); you don’t speak the local language, everything is alien around you, menacing, dark (“dark” in every sense); life is extremely uncomfortable - and yet, just bare two weeks later, you put together a choir (don’t forget about the time needed for auditioning finding an interpreter, the right people to help you, a place to perform, etc.!) which performs Afro-American spirituals, music known in Ukraine to merely a handful of people! Incredible - and yet true.
Now, six years later, the scope of Mr McMurrin’s activity has widened immensely and his contribution to the spiritual life in Kyiv, in broader terms in Ukraine, can hardly be exaggerated. His enthusiasm is so contagious that many people, drawn into his orbit, help him do what, at first glance, might seem impossible. McMurrin charges everyone around with his inexhaustible energy and makes things which seem impossible to happen. I talked to two of McMurrin’s close associates, Ms Helen Sedykh (choirmaster and KSOC assistant conductor, and also, when need arises - an interpreter for Mr McMurrin) and Mr Edward Senko (himself a conductor, he was one of those who helped set up KSOC in 1993; now he is also President of the Church of the Holy Trinity); they tried to explain to me how seemingly impossible things were made possible. “Roger is indeed a very special individual,” said Mr Senko, “it’s not only his great talent of a musician, it’s his being an achiever that matters so much. His way of letting his musicians know what he wants seems to be unique, at least for us here in Ukraine. Take those spirituals, something totally unknown in Ukraine. He made sure the singers understood not only the words of what they were supposed to sing, but the very spirit of the message. He did not limit himself to verbal explanations, he showed things with very eloquent gestures, which sometimes brought the message across better than words interpreted from English into Ukrainian. His conducting technique is so much different from what we are accustomed to here, in Ukraine. He is not a dictator, he does not impose his will, he makes the musicians understand what he wants to achieve by various, sometimes very ingenious ways, and he knows how to create an exciting atmosphere of camaraderie, of sharing.”
I was introduced to Mrs McMurrin, a charming woman who is much more than “just a spouse.” Being a musician and a good organizer, she takes part in all of her husband’s undertakings. She gave me a book that she had written and published in the United States. “The Splendor of His Music” is a story of “the adventures of two Americans living in post-Soviet Ukraine.” I read the book, 238 pages long, at one sitting, in the evening after the interview. Diane McMurrin describes in very great detail their — her husband’s and hers - decision to come to Ukraine, their first days in the unknown land, the people who helped them settle down and start putting together a choir and orchestra. I am sure a book like this should be translated and read here in Ukraine. It is a painful reading, it shows us the way we are in the eyes of “the civilized world” - dark streets at night; drunks; stray dogs everywhere; dirt, no smiles on grey, tired faces; shabby houses; rudeness; “oppressive Soviet-style living that covers the city like a dark cloud. But - ’’...we were beating down the cobwebs of the past and pointing towards an open door whose portals were inscribed with the words, ‘‘The Truth shall make you free.” The truth about ourselves and about our terrible Soviet heritage which must be shed shall indeed make us free. The problem is whether we do want to know the truth and to be free.
The book does not hide the dark sides of Ukrainian life but it does not concentrate on them either. The more you read, the more you realize that the author is fascinated with the people she has met, worked with. “You should not underestimate your people,” said Mr McMurrin, “they are enormously talented. They should be given a chance, and once they get it, there’ll be no end to their development.”
Listening to the story of all the problems that had to be dealt with by the McMurrins, all the obstacles that had to be overcome, I could not help asking in the end: “Still, I don’t quite understand why you decided to come here in the first place.” Mr McMurrin looked at me in the manner of one who wants to impart to his interlocutor something of great importance and wants it be fully understood (at this moment even his wonderful smile quit his lips for one little moment): “We, my wife and I, felt called upon by God to come here, we had a mission to perform.”
The interview made me feel elated, buoyant with new emotions and at the same time it made me sad and thoughtful. Why does it take an American (with no Ukrainian roots whatsoever) to discover our own talent, to tell us “You can do it and you will!”, to show us that so much can be achieved through determination, resolve, drive? And a smile, too. Shall we ever learn?

By Olexandr Panasyev