Olena Yuryeva is norwegian-ukrainian concert organist, pianist, teacher and chamber ensemble artist who resides in Norway.
Olena (maiden name Chikmareva) was born in 1974 in Kirovsk, Lugansk region, Ukraine. Olena started studies in piano at the Kirovsk music school and from age 8 participated in many piano competitions and was the winner several times. After she took studies at the Severodonetsk State Music College in piano performance at the class Marina Yavorskaya and had courses with Professor Susanna Arabkerzeva, Rostov Conservatory, Russia. From 1994 Olena took studies at the Kharkov State Institute of Arts in piano and organ performance. Olena received diploma as Soloist Orchestra in Piano and Chamber Ensemble Artist in piano and organ. Olena studied at the class of famous concert pianist, early President of EPTA Ukraine Nina Kazimirova (Canada/Ukraine) and had course with Professor of Moscow Conservatory Victor Merzhanov.
Olena had solo concerts from young age in Ukraine and Russia and played with many music performers and opera singers. She also played with one of the leading ukrainian violinists Igor Chernyavsky .
From 1999 to 2004 Olena worked as Piano teacher at Severodonetsk Music College named after Sergey Prokofiev and played solo concerts too. Year 2004 she moved to Norway.
Since 2005 Olena works as an organist for Norwegian State Church in Trondheim and region and as pianist and lecture. She played solo organ concerts at many churches including Molde Cathedral and Nidaros Cathedral, Norway and as chamber ensemble performer on piano as well. Her repertoire includes works of romantic, modern and contemporary piano, organ and chamber music.
From 2010 Olena studied at Trondheim Conservatory, Norway, organ performance led by Professor Harald Rise and Professor Ben van Oosten in Netherlands, and had lessons with Professor Michel Bouvard in France . Olena had master classes with Naji Hakim and Olivier Latry also. In 2015 she received Master degree in organ performance.
Olena is founder and leader of the Music Performing Arts Agency «Scherzo» which organizes concerts and projects with performers from Europe, Ukraine and Russia.
Interview from October 2013. On Russian:
Interview from October 2013 on English, for russian-speaking society in Norway.
Translated from russian to english by Katerina Smirnova):
"- How did you end up in Norway?
- Completely by chance. Nine years ago my husband was finishing his 2-years language program in England, and we were trying to decide, whether it was better for him to come back, or for me to try to move out, find a job there. The situation was unstable in Ukraine, both politically and economically, we thought it would benefit the future of our children (we had 2 at that time) if we settled down in Europe – at least for some time, if not forever. Family reunification wouldn’t be my option for moving out, because my husband had a student visa. At the same time my conservatory professor, Nina Kazimirova, emigrated to Canada and was trying to persuade me to do the same, but I wasn’t ready for such a long-distant move. I began making inquiries about the agencies that were taking care of travel documents for emigration to England. I found one in Kyiv that helped to open visas and legitimize diplomas. They got very excited, when they learned that I was a piano and organ player. It turned out, that an agency from Oslo approached them just the day before, and they were recruiting organists from Eastern Europe. I met all the basic requirements concerning my job experience and my level of English. Eventually I said yes. Passed a big test, a couple of phone interviews with the representatives on a Norwegian side, prepared all the needed documents.
- You were promised a permanent employment?
- Despite the shortage of the specialists, no one was offering a permanent job right away. It was about a year-long internship in Bergen. I was provided with accommodation for the duration of the stay (I was offered a stay with a family), and also a mentor – a local organist. I was supposed to search for the job myself. The agency promised to help, but without any guarantees. This program was still offered in Norway 2-3 years ago, but it was closed down since. Apparently, it was meant to be.
- Considering, how difficult it is to find a full-time job in Norway, the probability of coming back was high. Besides, organ was not your first instrument.
- I was ready for any development. Having to come back home didn’t scare me. Things were going great with my professional career in Ukraine, I was sought after: two almost full-time jobs at a wonderful music school (I was the youngest teacher), solo concerts with an orchestra. And I still decided to go for it – Europe has always kept my mind. I was told right away, that there were few vacancies for pianists in the country, so I focused on organ from the very start. I’ve taken an organ course at the conservatory, but it was pretty basic. After that I would occasionally play an electronic organ, but it has different foot pedals. When I was seated in Norway at a huge organ and introduced to the scale of the job – the program I was supposed to perform (the whole liturgy and almost 1000 of church psalms), I simply burst into tears of desperation. I began practicing with a tutor from the agency. It was a Norwegian organist, who turned out to be a very understanding and responsible man. After hearing me playing, he refused to take money for our lessons, although I was willing to pay him for that, and it’s among the things I’m grateful for. At first he would be present during our classes, but then he would give me the keys to the church, so I could discover the art of organ music on my own. I would play every day till 10pm, often taking the last bus home, I would visit every church service and each funeral to know the repertoire. I had to learn about a hundred pieces, plus the liturgy and plenty of psalms. Depressing also was the fact, that I had to learn everything really fast, including Norwegian language. In order to get a job at a church, for it is mostly where organists work, one must communicate in Norwegian. During the first half of the year I was totally shocked.
- Did it not bother you to perform at funerals mostly?
Funerals in Norway more closely resemble concerts. Our services are also beautiful, but the Norwegian ones really surprised me. It was for the first time, that I encountered such a high funeral culture. Everyone comes dressed up, looks fit, no one cries or weeps, tons of flowers. Scandinavian churches differ from the churches in other European countries, where they are completely self-dependent, which results in low wages for organists and few vacancies available. Norwegian church is funded by government, so there’s a lot more financial opportunities, and almost all of the funerals are held at the churches.
- When did you feel like you were getting by?
- In two months I was already certified, and began playing at some of the services. The agency that invited me demanded that I continued my studies, but I couldn’t afford that at the time. First I had to find a full-time job, so that I could move my kids who stayed with my husband’s mother. Previously we planned on them staying with my mum, but she died suddenly. Her death was devastating to me, and perhaps it was among the reasons that helped me to make a quicker decision to leave the country, at least temporally.
- Where did you look for a job? You simply sent out résumés?
- Through Internet I found a Dutch organist who worked in Norway, not far from Bergen. I wrote to him, asking for an advice as to where one with a background like mine would have the most chances of finding a job. To be honest, I had an illusion back then, that in Norway it would be appreciated, that I represented one of the world’s best piano schools. Ukrainian pianists are being recruited around the world – in Italy, Germany, Canada, Australia. But I quickly understood, I would have to start from scratch. I began following the vacancies of the Norwegian church, sending out résumés. I received two interview invitations. One offer had to be turned down right away – it was too far away from the major population centers. The second one, which covered several churches, was in Meråker and Stjordal. Already the fact, that it rained less, than in Bergen there, was appealing to me.
- Who conducted the interview? What did you talk about in general?
- A couple of people were present: a manager, a deacon, and a priest. The interview was held in English, but I tried to show that despite me living for just half a year in the country, I already spoke some Norwegian. Indeed, I knew the liturgy only in Norwegian. First of all, they asked me to play something, and I played several pieces on the piano and on the organ. And then they said, Here, play this, - and gave me some sheet music. It was quite a shock, of course, but, thankfully, I read music well. They were satisfied, said, that I played just as perfect as the pre-prepared piece. Reading music is very important for that job, because the orders come in just two days beforehand. You have to update the repertoire by 70%, so that you don’t play the same at a service as at a funeral, and it’s impossible to learn everything by heart. After figuring out the professional skills, we started talking “about life” – they like to pick your brain about human qualities. They asked me about my husband, my hobbies, whether I liked to knit, and if not – why not. I remember them asking me why I came in the first place, whether I liked Norway. I said I did, just as I loved Ukraine, it’s just that it was difficult there. They seemed almost offended by it. But they gave me the job anyway. The probation period must have lasted half a year according to the contract, during which one could get fired without being explained why, but in two months I already took my kids in.
- Maybe you shouldn’t have hurried with the kids?
- I missed them so much it was breaking my heart. My boy was 6 years old, and my girl – 8. They went to school straight away. They were assigned an additional language tutor, but otherwise they studied just like the rest. I was happy to have my family beside me, but it was also the hardest period. When I lived alone I could afford to practice 5 hours a day, but now I was constantly torn between playing, learning the language, driving kids to school, spending time with my husband. He didn’t work the first year, also having to learn the language, so family fully depended on me financially. And it was just the moment I got pregnant with the third kid! It was completely unexpected, on the one hand, but I’ve always wanted to have three kids, so since it happened anyway, I was glad it did.
- How did they receive the news at work?
For four months one couldn’t tell it from the way I looked, so I didn’t want to rush. Then everyone got surprised, but they said nothing, although I think it stressed them a bit. The thing is, they helped me a great deal with the paperwork – writing letters, filling questionnaires – so that I would get the job faster. And once I did – I get pregnant. I felt awkward myself. But I didn’t let them down – I worked as usual till the last weeks. I also gave concerts. I even managed to give two piano concerts in Bergen, and I was glad I was invited to play in Stjordal. It was funny, when one of the organizers called literally the next day after the labour – he simply didn’t know. But in several months I was already partly back, also with the concerts. I took my little daughter with me: I would play a piece, feed her, and then play again.
- What is usually played at the funerals? Is it church music exclusively?
- Norwegians have a fine musical culture, but a lot of the pieces that are often played there are simply unknown to us. Pop-music in fine arrangement is popular at the funerals in particular. There are ready-made ones, and sometimes you need to arrange yourself. Folk music is dearly loved, and it must be played. It’s not like you come and start off with some Bach, they might not even need him sometimes. At first I tried to bring in something new, offered to listen to this and that, but I understood it made them uneasy – they wanted us to mind their requests. To adapt was my only choice, and it wasn’t always easy. You were allowed some freedom at the concerts occasionally – and then I would play Grieg or Rachmaninoff. They love Rachmaninoff. Local musicians would often approach me after the concerts, and tell how deeply I go into the music. It’s also typical for Norwegians – a performer matters more than the piece performed.
- Did you worry you would remain “a funeral organist”? Not to belittle the professionalism of the musicians who perform in churches, but it is a job more suitable for specialists, while you were more of an artist.
I also gave it a lot of thought. I tried to not to lose shape, gave concerts throughout Norway and Ukraine. My financial situation stabilized, I could even afford to travel a lot, which was great. But at the same time this very aspect could have become demotivating. A person must constantly seek self-development, especially an artist, otherwise there will be stagnation, a deadlock. That is how I am, always in need of something more. I invited a nanny for the child, and once they were out for a walk, I would immediately sit down at the piano. A good instrument, a Yamaha, is something I bought right away. People at work didn’t understand, why I had to spend so much, but I couldn’t do without it. I would play in headphones, so that not to disturb my neighbors. That whole year all I had to play was determined by my job, and of course I felt my artistic side suffering. There was a lot to catch up with. I started with developing a repertoire for the organ. I would first play at home, and then with the foot pedal in the church. Simultaneously I began to revive my piano repertoire from the conservatory, which wasn’t really necessary – the concert demands in Norway aren’t as high as ours. Later I decided to enter a conservatory in Trondheim. I’m finishing it this year.
- Studies take a lot of time. What new were you able to learn?
- It was clear, that I wouldn’t learn much from the chamber music course at the conservatory, not after our education system. Whereas organ in Norway is totally a different case, this culture is much more developed – they rely on centuries of traditions. So I decided to apply for the organ, moreover, on the master’s level. At the test I performed some high level pieces, and the only thing that stood in the way of my enrolment was a successfully passed Bergenstest. At that time I already spoke fluent Norwegian, but I didn’t pass any test. I have a musical ear, and I learned the language fast, including the grammar. But in order to pass the test, you need to know a lot of idioms, even short dialogues are based on the analysis of the text. I felt I would need some preparation.
- So did you pass?
- Not after the first time. My composition wasn’t accepted, although I wrote it well. It had to be a 300-characters piece, whereas I only wrote 292. A miscalculation, I guess. But by that time I had already been accepted at the conservatory. It was a general competition, all instruments included, and only 12 out of 4 candidates got in.
- And how about the test?
- I’ve been paroled. The certificate was a pure formality, we communicated a lot, they knew I had no problems with the language. Plus I’ve gained quite an experience in the field by that time. Nevertheless, they would remind me delicately of it from time to time. I passed the test at the second attempt, and brought the certificate as promised. However, as I learnt later on, I was the only one among the foreigners who did that, the rest passed Trinn 3, which is a lot easier.
- So everything ran according to the plan…
- One could say that, if we don’t count the divorce that happened right before that.
- That’s bold. Not every women with three children would go for it, especially not in a foreign country.
The divorce is not a pleasant experience, but sometimes there comes a moment, where a marriage slows down your personal development. It’s better to separate yourselves when it comes to it. I remember I would even have music in dreams as I slept. I understood I had to attend to that need. A new life began for me after the divorce, I felt more optimistic. Besides, it’s all very civil here, we kept our good relationship. But I could also understand women, who lack courage for a divorce. People sometimes ask myself: “Why wouldn’t you find yourself a Norwegian?” I don’t mind new relationships, and it’s not a matter of nationality, the main thing is that the person is good for you. But right now I’m too involved in the music.
- Did the Norwegian conservatory fulfill your expectations? Is there a significant difference between our systems?
- Theory is treated way more seriously here. If, for example, there is almost no theory at our performative Master department – and I’m mastering in performance – in Norway I have to constantly deal with written projects. Maybe that is the explanation for the high language demands. At the same time, the education process is very flexible, I can choose which subjects to study each semester, and I like it a lot. There’s another pleasant moment. In our first years we received grants – a certain amount of money, which could only be spent on your realization as a performer. Thanks to that program I began taking classes With known Norwegian professor Harald Rise and with one of the most renowned organists in the world, Ben van Osten from Holland. I studied French Romantic music at the conservatory, and Osten is not just a genius organist and a great teacher, he also recorded all the French Romantic music, and was even rewarded twice by the French government for that. But these pieces are usually performed on the big Romantic organs, of which there are few in Norway – one of those is in Nidaros cathedral. That’s why I also began travelling to France, to practice with the famous Michele Bouvard. By the way, it is only an advantage for the French Romantic organ music, if you are also a pianist. The founder of this school, Cesar Franck, was a piano player till 25, and only then did he begin to study organ. In his works, as in the works of the later composers of this school, a piano technique is used.
- Are you happy with how your artist career is doing today?
- I started receiving so many concert offers, that I had to extend my studies for a year – I simply had no time. There were moments, when I had to focus solely on the organ, and that was uncomfortable for me, but now the repertoire is more balanced, I focus equally on the organ and the piano. My task for the future is to give concerts also outside Norway.
- Does your name, your surname rather, so unfamiliar to a Norwegian ear, stand in the way of achieving that?
- I can’t say it does, but it doesn’t help either. Here’s an example. In the summer of 2012 a famous French organist Olivier Latry came here. He teaches in the Paris conservatory, plays at the Notre-Dame. I played at one of his workshops together with a few Norwegian organists. It was a sold-out. It was during the Saint Olav days in Trondheim, and traditionally many guests come to the town, also from abroad. After my performance one of the guests, I think he was English, noticed my obviously not Scandinavian appearance, and asked Olivier, where I came from and whether he had brought me along. It happens, that teachers bring their students to the classes. “No, - answered Latry. – I don’t even know, where she comes from”. When I said “from Ukraine”, they first heard it as UK. It was funny and, probably, unexpected for the Norwegians. The fact, that I wasn’t a Norwegian, and, as a result, didn’t represent Norwegian culture, their musical traditions, was immediately noticed by the foreign listeners.
- But it’s Norwegian traditions that you represent exactly. You shaped yourself as an organist in Norway.
- My technique differs. Everything is different – the touch, the virtuosity. Norwegian pianists are not virtuosic enough, even the musicians with good and natural motor skills. We have long-lasting performative traditions, since the Soviet times. I tutor a boy, a Norwegian, who was nominated for a governmental scholarship. He is very talented, he plays Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and he does it according to our school. When his peers, who are also talented, play the Norwegian way, the difference is obvious. I can say one thing: it’s harder for a foreigner to gain some success, you have to be stronger than the Norwegians – you have to be literally one step ahead. But it’s not about discrimination, it’s about competition. Of course, were I Norwegian, it would have been easier for everyone, even in terms of communication. So under equal conditions they will always choose their own. It is also the case outside Norway. I know a Russian cello player, who lives in Germany. He tells the same story. He arrived there, being a senior lecturer at the Saint-Petersburg conservatory, but no one paid any attention to that. And I came here, fully realizing, that it wouldn’t be easy. It doesn’t matter, what name and experience you brought with you to a foreign country, it’s not written on your back. For a few years I had to constantly prove my worth – first at Den norske kirke, and then at the conservatory. Nevertheless, I never wanted to change my name. People will remember the name, once there is a reputation to it. Even now, when asked, where I come from, I emphasize, that I’m Ukrainian. My soul is Ukrainian, and it is not my goal to become “a real Norwegian”, I haven’t even changed my citizenship, although I do try to soak everything good, that the Norwegian culture has to offer.
- Do you feel comfortable in Norway? Do you feel at home?
- No sooner than two years ago did I begin to feel that way in my soul, despite never having to deal with any formal reasons for anxiety. Probably it’s because I didn’t have my circle before – friends and musicians, that is. I mean a circle of professional, with whom I can create some projects, a circle of like-minded people, I can discuss things with, share ideas. There’s a good Norwegian word – miljø. It’s not friends, there’s venner for that, and it’s not just someone you know – tjennskap. It’s this miljø of mine, that I lacked for a long time. I realized, I would hardly make close friends, it wasn’t even my goal during the first years, there was too much to deal with. There was just one need – to visit family and friends in Ukraine, which I did. But then I made some Russian friends here, and after my children grew up, there’s more time for communication. I read recently, that, according to psychologists, it takes 7 years on average to adapt. I fully agree. Indeed, only after 7 years did I begin to feel comfortable. When I just came to Norway, I didn’t have a familiar present, but neither a clear future. There was a liminal, hanging state of uncertainty, and it weighed heavy on me. But now, even when I’m in Ukraine, I start missing my life here after some time, and then I come back, as if here’s my home.
- Our compatriots often engage in discussions on the cultural differences and the difficulties in adaptation that follow. What can you say from your experience?
- During the first 6 months I would even cry a little, when calling my friends or my family – that’s how unusual it felt. After Ukraine everything seemed tiny – streets, buildings. But I was most impressed by the feeling of time people here had. I tried to do everything in my own rhythm, but I would constantly be told: slapp av, slapp av. But how could I allow myself to relax? Our people are more open, sincere, and it’s a huge difference. Here you meet a person, you talk, and then when you meet and you greet him, he behaves, as if he sees you for the first time. It’s completely normal here. It might also happen with our people, but only if you had a conflict. Or let’s imagine a mum is unhappy about something at the music school. In such cases our parents come to the teacher and talk with him. Here, even if it concerns basic working moments, one calls the chancellor directly, without saying a word to the teacher, and then the chancellor talks to the teacher. I heard a lot of these stories. By calling something open, I mean exactly the way people communicate and exchange their points of view directly, not behind someone’s back. It just happened, that I don’t have close friends among Norwegians, although I have a lot of good ones, I’m surrounded by good people. I don’t really care, what’s their nationality – whether they are Russian, German, or Norwegian. One Norwegian journalist said once in the very beginning: “Norway is a small country, so get ready for some difficult times”. Compared to Spain or Holland, people in Norway are not that used to such a flow of migrants, so it’s no surprise, they take longer time to approach a foreigner. I sometimes read some truly horrifying stories, that happened to our compatriots. Of course, there are some national features, but there are no cultural differences, that are impossible to overcome, where you have to break yourself. Perhaps, sometimes people themselves behave inappropriately, or lack self-criticism. I analyzed a lot of situations I’ve been through, and I can say, I changed my mind on some of them. Recently we had a discussion on that topic with my Norwegian priest, and he said very calmly: “People are different in any country, someone is better, someone is worse. One has to accept it, and not focus on those with a negative worldview”. I agree with him. I think it’s important not to look for the differences, but for that, which can bring us together, teach us to embrace our life no matter what.
It’s extremely important to find your purpose. Not through a comparison with someone, but judging by your own abilities and developing those. There’s another important thing: everything takes time. In Norway it even takes longer, than we used to, so you have to develop a lot of patience. But the problem is, that many People don’t even search for themselves, “a project of their own”, and so life gets boring for them.
- Did you yourself change in 9 years?
- I became calmer, and somewhat more reserved. Even with Ukrainians – just out of habit. Some might perceive that as stardom, but my friends, whom I dearly love, know the truth. I can’t communicate a lot, but once I get an opportunity, I’m always with them. Now I read more of religious and philosophical literature. I became more conscious when doing things. It even influences my art. I used to take up everything I could get, and now I first consider, whether I need it, I try to make every decision a conscious one. Maybe, it’s not about Norway. I’ve simply grown up."