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An Orchestrated Defection

World-class bassoonist and former Northern Virginia resident Arnold Irchai fled the Soviet Union in 1990.

Following an evening performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 1990, world-class bassoonist Arnold Irchai did not return to the hotel with his fellow Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra musicians.

Irchai, fed up with the oppression he saw daily in the Soviet Union, had instead defected to the United States in the Kennedy Center's underground parking garage.

"On the surface, I had a successful career and I was doing what I loved," said Irchai. "But if one would look deeper, one would see a person who is totally uncomfortable about lots of things around him. The lack of freedoms — with freedom of expression being the most important to me — made me often feel suffocated."

Under the Communist Party rule in the U.S.S.R., Irchai watched as talented Jewish musicians were banned from international competitions. Skilled artists would rarely be allowed to leave the country, and then only the watchful eye of Party officials.

So when the Moscow orchestra's world tour arrived in Washington, D.C., Irchai knew he would not be returning to his home in St. Petersburg.

"I was very scared for the future of my son, Alexander," said Irchai, who speaks with a booming Russian accent. "I wanted to be free, and, more importantly, I wanted my son to find out what freedom means."

GROWING UP in St. Petersburg, Irchai was the son of two prominent Russian musicians. His mother, Valentina, was a renowned piano teacher, and his father, Mark, played violin with the Kirov Opera and Ballet's orchestra.

"During my childhood years, I was practically surrounded by music," he said.

As a young boy, Irchai attended the Leningrad Special School for Musically Gifted Children and played the violin and piano. He hated practicing, but loved performing on stage before an audience.

At age 13, his father saw that he was frustrated with the violin and introduced him to the bassoon. "It was love at first sight," he recalled.

His father challenged him to quickly master the instrument. "With my ambition and vanity at stake, I practiced, practiced and practiced," he said.

Upon graduating high school, Irchai studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, earning his master's and doctoral degrees in bassoon performance and conducting. While in college, he began playing bassoon for the Malyi Opera and Ballet Theater. Not long afterward, he won an audition with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and moved to Moscow.

From 1974 until his defection 16 years later at the Kennedy Center, Irchai was the principal bassoonist of the Moscow Philharmonic, working with top-tier conductors like Kiril Kondrashin and Dmitry Kitaenko.

During his time in Moscow, Irchai drew world-wide recognition for his remarkable bassoon-playing chops. Touring Europe, Asia and the Americas, he won accolades including first prize in the All-Russia Music Competition for Woodwin Quintets and the Distinguished Artist of Russian Federation Award.

IT WAS NO SMALL thing for a bassoonist of Irchai's caliber to defect to the United States. And his transition from renowned musician to penniless immigrant was no easy task.

"The first years were very difficult, both emotionally and financially," Irchai said. "When I defected, I literally just spoke a few words of English."

One of the few phrases Irchai knew was "yes, yes." Consequently, he would agree to just about anything he was asked.

After being granted asylum by the U.S. government, Irchai found work at a Washington, D.C. hotel, cleaning bathrooms and other menial jobs. As he had little space, he kept his few possessions — including his bassoon — at the hotel.

Irchai's bassoon had been loaned to him by Alan Fox, owner of a bassoon factory in South Whitley, Ind. Irchai and other members of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra had visited the factory a few days before his defection.

After the defection, Irchai contacted Fox and offered to return the bassoon. But Fox, realizing Irchai's tough situation, told him to keep it until he could afford to pay him back.

"He asked me if I needed it and I replied that I loved the instrument but did not have the money to pay for it," he said. "He did not know me well. He did not know if or when I would find an orchestra job. Nevertheless, he suggested that I should keep the instrument and I will always be grateful for that."

DURING THE 44-year Cold War, defections of notable Soviet artists and musicians were rare but not unheard of. Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the United States in 1974 while on tour with Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. And Rudolf Nureyev, also considered one of the greatest male dancers of the 20th Century, defected from Russia in the Paris airport in 1961.

The Communist Party encouraged its artists to travel abroad during the Cold War, showcasing the culture of the U.S.S.R. to Western audiences. Typically, the artists would be tightly monitored by Party minders while abroad.

Some artists, like Irchai, Baryshnikov and Nureyev grew tired of Russian restriction of the arts.

"Art existed to support and maintain communism," said Mark Katz, a George Mason University government and politics professor. "Anything that didn't was considered suspect."

When a top artist defected to the other side, it was an embarrassing blow. "Any defection made them look bad," Katz said. "But especially if a person who was being treated well by the system."

IN THE MONTHS following his defection, Irchai was clueless as to how he could link up with an orchestra. But while walking from a Metro stop one day, he noticed a flyer for the Arlington Symphony. He auditioned with the orchestra's director, David Politt, and was offered a bassoon-playing job within minutes.

He quit his hotel job, but failed to realize the Arlington Orchestra played only five concerts per year and that he could not survive on the salary.

"I am still glad I took that job," he said. "It was a beginning."

Over the next several years, Irchai subsisted on a variety of jobs, including delivering pizzas throughout Northern Virginia. Gradually however, he made connections in the Washington, D.C. classical music scene and hooked up with the Mount Vernon Orchestra, Arlington Symphony and Prince William Symphony.

While performing in the region, Irchai met Ulysses "Ul" James, music director of the Mount Vernon Orchestra, which is now known as the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic.

James had been seeking a bassoonist to play Stravinsky's Second Ochtet with the orchestra, based in Mount Vernon. Once he met Irchai, James said, he knew the Russian was perfect for the part.

The two men became fast friends as Irchai became accustomed to his adopted country. "He's a most honorable man," said James. "Absolutely modest. And a fine, fine, fine, fine musician."

FOUR YEARS AGO, Irchai left Northern Virginia after a dozen years to become an assistant professor of bassoon at the University of Florida.

Plus, he works as the principal bassoonist of the National Philharmonic and of the Central Florida Symphony Orchestra. He is also program director of the Mount Vernon Music Festival.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1997. He lives in Gainesville with his wife, Irina, and their two boys, Mark, 9, and Daniel, 3. His oldest son, Alexander, lives in Burke with his family.

On Feb. 18, Irchai returned to Alexandria, performing John Williams' "The Five Sacred Trees" Concerto for Bassoon with the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic at Bishop Ireton High School.

"Ul is proud of his orchestra's community ties and loves to perform contemporary music," Irchai said. "I have great respect for the work he is doing as both a person and a musician."