SPRINGFIELD, Ohio --- A Wittenberg University music professor is taking his self-described "American music mission" to Kyiv, Ukraine to conduct the first-ever performance in the former Soviet Republic of "West Side Story," the late Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's modern American classic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Ian Polster, one of the most prolific arrangers of instrumental music in the United States, is an unabashed evangelist of 20th century American music. A trombonist, he has performed with such jazz orchestras as Stan Kenton, Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini.
"I look forward to taking the message of American music to an area that has heard very little of it," Polster said. "This is what my life has been about...the music of our time and culture. I am like a music missionary."
Performances will be held the first two weeks of August at the Ukranian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music, although Polster is leaving July 20 to begin rehearsals. Ukraine with a population of 51 million, proclaimed its sovereignty from the Soviet Union in 1990 and has been independent from the Soviet Union since August 1991. Kyiv (formerly known as Kiev), is the country's capital with a population of 2.6 million.
Polster was invited to conduct the music for "West Side Story" by a long-time acquaintance, Roger McMurrin, conductor of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Polster and McMurrin taught together at Xenia High School in the early 1960s.
Polster explained that under the former Soviet Union, most "Western" music was banned and only in recent years have citizens in that region been exposed to American music.
Polster, who has arranged more than 500 songs for marching bands, 1,000 pieces for jazz and several hundred scores for orchestras, is well-aquainted with "West Side Story," having directed it about 10 years ago for the Springfield Summer Arts Festival. In the 1970s he arranged a suite of "West Side Story" dance music which has been performed all over the world, and was personally approved by Bernstein.
He is now negotiating with the Bernstein estate to publish a second set of "West Side Story" arrangements.
Lila Zahkarov, a Wittenberg University associate professor of languages, has been working with Polster to help him pick up Ukrainian language, actually one of many dialects of Russian. Polster said he is a poor student.
"I have enough trouble with the 26 letters of the English alphabet, let alone the 32 in Ukrainian," he quipped. "I am told I will have an interpreter right at my side, but I am still worried about counting the music in Ukrainian."
Polster, who is rarely at a loss for words, said he is concerned about the lyric translations but that music is an international language.
"I can't imagine being tongue-tied," he said. "But 'West Side Story' is one of the hardest musicals ever written and Sondheim is such a craftsman with words, I will be interested to see what kind of translation they come up with. So much of the language of the show is slangy American."
Another intriguing aspect for Polster will be the response of the musicians and dancers, who are strictly classically trained in Ukraine and not used to the more free-flowing forms of American jazz and dance.
Although this will be Polster's first visit to Ukraine it won't be his first trip to Europe this summer. In June Polster accompanied the Ohio State University Alumni Marching Band on a tour of Germany. Polster is one of the OSU alumni band's principle arrangers and soloists.
"Pretty good for a guy who doesn't usually get much farther than Urbana," he said.
Nor will it be the first time his musical touch will be felt in Ukraine.
A July 4 concert at the American embassy in Kyiv featured Polster's arrangements of "String of Pearls," "Stardust" and "You Made Me Love You."
His talents are already known world-wide as in 1998 Polster's arrangement of "New York, New York" was performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Osaka Symphony in Japan.
Polster's arranging skills will likely have to be put to the test again with the Ukrainian version of "West Side Story." McMurrin has arranged for the musical to be translated into Ukrainian, but Polster may have to do some of the musical work.
Accompanying Polster on his trip will be his wife, Carol Gesalman, pastor of the Fifth Lutheran Church in Springfield. While Polster will be doing his "music missionary" work, his wife will be doing some of the traditional religious missionary work through the Music Mission Kyiv which McMurrin and his wife, Diane, formed to promote music and Christian ministry.
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