San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Russian Organist Plays to Save C.R.’s Organs

As part of the 16th Credomatic Music Festival kicking off tomorrow, Russian organist Elena Keylina will give two organ recitals Aug. 8 and 15 at the Las Mercedes Church in Grecia, a coffee town west of San José. This will be the third time Costa Ricans will have the privilege of hearing the renowned organist play.

Keylina is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, where she studied the organ and music history. Before moving to Costa Rica with her husband last year, she was artistic director of the Russian Consort ensemble of soloists. She has performed around the world, in Russia, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland and Jordan.

“I would play more often in Costa Rica if there were more functioning organs here,” the musician quips.

As part of her goodwill work here, Keylina spent the last year traveling around the country inspecting the state of church organs in Costa Rica. She found many valuable organs, but most of them were in pitiful states.

“In this country, nobody plays organs anymore, so the instruments are not maintained,” she says. “This is too bad, because the two organs in Heredia (in the Our Lady of Carmen Church and the Immaculate Conception Parish Church) are of top-notch quality.”

Keylina says these organs were made in the 19th century by French master Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, whose organs grace such famous buildings as the Moscow Conservatory and Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.

“Yet the instruments in Heredia are neither maintained nor functioning,” Keylina laments. “Even the skill to properly repair an organ is lost here.”

It is Keylina’s desire to reintroduce organ music to Costa Ricans – but the old organs must first be repaired. To raise funds for their restoration, the organist has been giving charity concerts here. Proceeds from her concerts and CD sales go to local churches to aid them in their restoration projects.

For the music festival, Keylina will play Aug. 8 in an all-baroque evening with three U.S. trumpeters; on Aug. 15, she will play Vivaldi and Marcello sonatas with friend and well-known cellist Mikhail Utkin, who was a student of Rostropovich and a member of the Moscow Piano Trio. For a schedule of festival concerts, see the Calendar pages.

The Tico Times talked to this big-hearted musician recently. Excerpts:

TT: The organ has long been associated with church music. Is there a role for the

instrument in contemporary secular music?

EK: Of course. The organ is widely used in Europe and the United States, where it is played in concert halls. Some famous 20thcentury organ composers include American Roy Harris, Russian Alfred Schnittke and Frenchman Olivier Messiaen. In pop culture, rock musicians such as Rick Wright of Pink

Floyd and Keith Emerson of the group Emerson, Lake and Palmer used electric organs for dramatic effects. Organ music is also popular in horror films and television dramas.

Classical musicians enjoyed special privileges in the former Soviet Union. Is this still the case today?

Artists and classical musicians had a lot of prestige in the former Soviet Union. I got recognized by ordinary people on the streets; that was my reward. But we did not get any financial or material privileges. I had to wait in line at the market like everyone else, only to find out at the last minute that there was nothing left to buy. Artists are still treated with respect now, and thankfully there are no more lineups.

Your daughter is a musician in Moscow. Did you also follow in your parents’ footsteps when you chose music as a career?

No. My mother is an engineer, my father an economist. But they loved music and brought me to operas and concerts almost every week when I was young. I also grew up listening to my grandfather singing. He was  an amateur singer at the local synagogue. That was my introduction to the world of music. His songs were hard to sing, but I knew them by heart. It was on the basis of those ancient songs that I got accepted into the special music school at the Moscow Conservatory.

What do you miss about Russia?

I miss the cold, the snow and real Christmas trees. Of course, I also miss the rich cultural life of Moscow. On a professional level, I miss the camaraderie of fellow musicians. I find musicians here harder to connect with. They are more isolationist.

Many famous musicians hail from Russia. Do you find doors easier to open on the international stage because of your Russian pedigree?

No, not really. There are many excellent Russian musicians living and working abroad now.We are not a sought-after breed anymore. I do both chamber music and solo work. I think being versatile helps to open doors. Being Russian is not a determining factor.

You recorded 14 CDs in Russia.Are there plans for another one?

I have another CD coming out in mid-August. It was recorded during my concerts in Russia late last year – baroque music of course. The CD will be available here during the music festival.

Who is your favorite composer? Do you listen to non-classical music?

I love Bach, Telemann and Rachmaninoff. I also enjoy jazz and blues.My favorite singer is (U.S. blues musician) Taj Mahal.


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