By Greenville News Editorial Board: September 25, 2016
On Saturday evening Greenville celebrated the unique story of one of the Upstate’s greatest treasures, and the program will be repeated this afternoon.
With a concert that features a Russian great and two American icons, Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel celebrated the 25th anniversary of his defection to the United States. Eight years later, in 1999, he was appointed music director and conductor of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra. The Symphony, and Greenville, have never been the same.
Tchivzhel can’t be credited with the revival of this community, but his arrival in 1991 and later decision to become a United States citizen was concurrent with the renaissance of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra and the rebirth of downtown Greenville. The timing was so precisely aligned that it seems serendipitous. At the very least, his story can serve as an allegory for how Greenville was rescued from obscurity to become a jewel of the Southeast. And it’s definitely worth celebrating.
Saturday’s program marking Tchizhvel’s momentous anniversary is called “The Great Escape.” It includes pieces from Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. The Copland piece, in particular, paints a uniquely American portrait and fits well with the maestro’s story of finding a new home in the United States that, even if only symbolically, drew him even as a child when he heard American jazz for the first time at 10 years old.
Tchivzhel said the program is a “farewell to the past and hello to the present and future.” He added that after starting a new life here in 1991, “I feel 25 years old.”
Good for us, if that means we can look forward to decades more of Tchivzhel’s leadership over the GSO.
For those who don’t know the conductor’s story, it is one full of Cold War intrigue and a pursuit of the American Dream.
While touring with the USSR State Symphony in 1991, Tchivzhel made the decision while in Greenville to defect. With the help of some prominent local people and, later the FBI, Tchivzhel made an improbable escape from armed KGB agents when he was whisked away from an airport as his fellow musicians looked on.
Arts writer Paul Hyde recently recounted the story in a The News:
While in Greenville and eating dinner at Chuck E. Cheese’s, of all places, the night before the USSR State Symphony’s concert in the new Peace Center in downtown Greenville, Tchivzhel told translator Lena Forster, then manager of Greenville Ballet, that he wanted to defect. She took his message to local lawyer Larry Estridge, who died in October. Estridge and others in the community agreed to help Tchivzhel and his family defect. The decision was followed by weeks of secret conversations while the USSR State Symphony continued its tour.
To evade the watchful eye of KGB agents, Tchivzhel used his nightly jog to make calls to Forster from pay phones along his route. Estridge, meanwhile, prepared the legal papers needed for Tchivzhel, his wife Luba and then 4-year-old son Arvid to gain political asylum.
The drama culminated at a Washington, D.C., airport where Tchivzhel and his family were spirited away by three FBI agents. The getaway car was followed by officials from the Soviet Embassy, but they eventually gave up.
After his defection, Tchivzhel visited Greenville several times as a guest conductor, and then was hired as music director in 1999.
He has since taken the orchestra to new heights, and is a delight to watch on the podium. His stature and talent have also helped Greenville attract some high-profile musicians, such as cello rock star Yo-Yo Ma.
Greenville is fortunate to have a conductor of Tchivzhel’s caliber and we should be thankful he made the decision to become a United States citizen and to settle here.
So, we celebrate Tchivzhel’s past and we look forward to a rewarding future of his musical and civic leadership at the helm of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.