When Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel leads the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, his gestures indicate not merely the tempo, but also his unbounded passion for music. He conducts with his entire being, skillfully guiding the musicians through the story he discovers within each composition. Though Tchivzhel’s technique and musical understanding are impressive, it is his ability to evoke emotion and create powerful musical moments that make him a true artist. The Maestro’s impassioned conducting is undoubtedly inspired in part by his own dramatic story of defection from the repressive Soviet Union.

Edvard Tchivzhel first visited Greenville in 1991 while serving as the associate conductor of the U.S.S.R. State Symphony Orchestra. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, he was under constant surveillance by the government. Despite being one of the most widely acclaimed conductors in Russia, he had no control over his career. All contracts and trips outside the country were determined and controlled by the government.

It was by fortunate chance that Tchivzhel’s wife, Luba, and son, Arvid, were able to accompany him on his month-long U.S. tour. Families were rarely allowed to leave the country but were kept as hostages to assure a traveling musician’s return. While in Greenville, the first stop on the orchestra’s tour, Tchivzhel expressed his desire to defect to the United States to Lena Forster, executive director and founder of International Ballet Academy who had been hired as a translator. Forster contacted local real estate lawyer Larry Estridge who set to work decoding the complex immigration laws.

Tchivzhel chose to complete his tour with the Soviet Orchestra, all the while knowing that he would be constantly monitored by members of the KGB. He continued to communicate with Estridge and Forster throughout the tour by escaping to payphones on his daily jogs. A plan for defection was made for the final stop of the tour in Washington D.C. As the musicians were being loaded onto buses at the airport, Forster met Tchivzhel and handed him his prepared defection papers. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents were on hand to accept the forms and provide an armed escort for the Maestro and his family. The Tchivzhels were granted political asylum and moved in with Forster while they adjusted to their new life in South Carolina.

In 1999 the Tchivzhels attained U.S. citizenship, and Edvard accepted the position of Music Director and Conductor at the Greenville Symphony Orchestra. The Maestro is deeply grateful for all who helped him gain his freedom, and he expresses this appreciation at the start of every concert as he leads the audience in the national anthem. It has become overwhelmingly clear that the Tchivzhels were not the only ones to benefit from their defection 25 years ago. The GSO, the larger Greenville community, and even the great composers whose works are performed at each concert have been given new life, energy, and meaning under the masterful hand of the Maestro.