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THE CLASSICAL TRAVELER | A Music Man on a Mission

By Paul E. Robinson on January 22, 2015

Conductor, Roger McMurrin
Conductor, Roger McMurrin

Tucson, Arizona |  I caught up with conductor Roger McMurrin recently in Tucson, Arizona. In a few weeks time he was scheduled to make a return visit to Bishkek, Kyrgystan for a series of concerts, but home these days is Kiev, Ukraine where he has been making music and preaching the Gospel for the past 22 years.

Why did Ohio-born McMurrin, in the midst of a flourishing career in Florida, uproot himself and his family and move to Kiev, where, at age 74, he is busier than ever? Obviously, he is no ordinary American musician.

The big breakthrough in McMurrin’s career came in 1972 with his appointment as Music Director of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

I was teaching choral music at Otterbein College in Ohio at the time when I got a call from a tiny church in Florida. They wanted to interview me for the position of Director of Music. I really wasn’t interested but Columbus, Ohio in February is very dreary and I thought a weekend in Ft. Lauderdale would be very appealing. After the interview, I still wasn’t very interested, but I found to my horror that Otterbein had now decided to consider tenure only for three senior members of the Music Department and I wasn’t one of them. I decided that Florida looked pretty good after all.

Coral Ridge Presbyterian was a very small church at that time but its first pastor, James Kennedy, was determined to make it bigger. His dream was to make it the largest Christian church in South Florida, and he believed that to fulfill that dream his church needed music – lots of it. That music also needed to be of the highest quality. With the appointment of Roger McMurrin, he had selected the man who could help him realize that dream. Roger was to be assisted by Diane Bish, a young woman who became one of the foremost organ soloists of her generation.

Within a few years, Dr. Kennedy had grown the church and raised the funds to build a magnificent mega-church seating 2,800 with a 300 ft. tower, and Roger and Diane had selected a fine Rufatti organ worthy of such an imposing structure. The Coral Ridge concerts became famous for their quality and over the years featured some of the most famous names in classical music, among them Van Cliburn, the Atlanta Symphony, the King’s Singers and the Canadian Brass.

In 1992 Roger was invited to guest conduct in Kiev, Ukraine. It was such an inspiring experience that it changed his life. Later, while on a flight to California he became convinced that he had been called by God to go back to Ukraine to live and work. Roger said that when he arrived at his destination and met his wife Diane there, he was afraid to tell her what he had decided. Much to his amazement – she had been on a separate flight – she told him that she had had the same experience and reached the same conclusion!

Roger and Diane moved to Kiev and started what became known as Music Mission Kiev (MMK). It wasn’t easy. Ukraine was in terrible shape after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet system was gone but as yet there was nothing to replace it. The economy was in a shambles, cultural life was adrift and many people felt abandoned and confused. In this depressing vacuum, Roger saw a need and an opportunity. Without being able to speak either Russian or Ukrainian, Roger used music to lift people up – and not just any kind of music. He concentrated on Christian sacred music, which had not been allowed in Ukraine for several generations. The musicians didn’t know Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Poulenc’s Gloria. Even great Russian orchestral pieces like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture had been “corrected” by the authorities. Roger brought back the choral masterpieces and the original versions of works that had been mutilated by the Soviets.

Music Mission Kiev
Music Mission Kiev

But Music Mission Kiev did much more than bring back Christian sacred music classics for the people of Kiev; the music was a means to inspire people in Kiev to understand and relate to the Gospel. The goal was to introduce them to Christianity. For more than 20 years now Roger and Diane have been trying to carry out that mission. Apart from concerts and church services, they put a great deal of effort into humanitarian activities. The government of Ukraine provides only a pittance to the elderly and they can’t begin to provide for themselves. One of MMK’s ongoing programs provides food and medicine to widows and pensioners. More recently, MMK has done its part to help refugees from Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The turmoil of the last few years has taken hundreds of lives and made economic recovery even more difficult throughout the whole country.

About a year ago Roger handed over leadership of Music Mission Kiev to a Canadian, Wes Janzen from Trinity Western University of British Columbia; the work goes on.

Although I don’t share the religious convictions of Roger and Diane, I am convinced that their dedication arises from a deep commitment to their fellow man and to the people of Ukraine. The lives of “church musicians” are sometimes thought to be boring and uneventful – not so in Roger’s case. Combining his faith and his talent, Roger has spent his life building institutions that can serve the needs of others, and to judge by the energy and enthusiasm I saw in Tucson, I don’t think he is done yet.

Roger & Diane McMurrin
Roger & Diane McMurrin

Diane McMurrin has written four books about her and Roger’s experiences in Ukraine; these can be ordered through the organization’s website: www.musicmissionkiev.org.

For something more…In the mid-1990s Naxos Records produced and released a series of CDs under the title “Ukrainian Composers,” on their Marco Polo label, which generally featured pretty obscure music. Most of the performances were by the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Theodore Kuchar. This past year Naxos re-released these recordings under its flagship “Naxos” label. There is some wonderful music here; I’ll discuss some of these recordings in my next article.

Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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Ludwig Van Toronto

INTERVIEW | Jessye Norman: A Force Of Nature

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The legendary American soprano and Glenn Gould Prize Winner reflects on her career, her experiences of being an artist of colour, and her thoughts on issues dear to her heart.
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