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Birthed in suffering: The enchanting music of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

A friend recently attended a performance by the Christian group Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus that is currently touring Canada. She described it was one of the most incredible events she has ever attended, Christian or secular.

Oddly this group from the Ukraine, now working under Music Mission Kyiv, was not always Christian.

A year after the fall of Soviet Union in December 1991, an Episcopalian church in Kiev, Ukraine invited American Christian choral director Roger McMurrin to present Handel’s Messiah.

The atheistic communist government had forbid sacred music and Handel’s Messiah had not been played in the Ukraine for an estimated 70 years.

After his arrival in 1992, McMurrin who had served as choral director for several churches in the US, hired a local symphony and 37 singers to put on the Christian classic.

The performance had a profound impact on the people, the media and the choral group. McMurrin described the presentation as an “explosion of light.” On his flight home to America, God asked McMurrin to move back to the Ukraine, to live and minister. He and his family sold everything and returned.

With the support of American friends, McMurrin formed the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in 1993. They were able to pay the singers and musicians a $1 a day which back then was very good money considering doctors only earned $6 a month under the communists.

Because of this, McMurrin was able to hire some of the best singers and musicians available. But like the country where they lived, most were either atheists or at best agnostics.

When McMurrin gave the group Bibles in January 1994, it was the first Bible many of them had seen.  But the big transformation took place in February that year when during a church performance, 90 members of the choir and symphony stood to receive Christ during an altar call.

Emboldened by this move of the Holy Spirit, the next year McMurrin started Music Mission Kyiv.

The goal of the ministry is to use musicians to preach the gospel through music. They minister primarily in the Ukraine and in countries to the east — formerly part of the Soviet Union.

When possible their presentation is liberally sprinkled with testimonies, prayers and preaching of the Gospel.  They even present performances in Russian so they can sing the gospel in places where preaching is still forbidden.

McMurrin would later start churches and the ministry expanded to including giving food and clothing to widows and orphans in a country devastated by years of communist rule.

The church and ministry was actively involved in the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution that took place between November 2004 to January 2005 protesting the Russian-style corruption that engulfed the 2004 Ukrainian election.

The protests succeeded in dethroning Viktor Yanukovych who had stolen the election. However, Yanukovych would return to power during the 2010 presidential election.

McMurrin, 77, who is still actively involved in the ministry has stepped back from some of his roles. In 2014, Canadian Wes Janzen, a professor of music at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, agreed to take over as choral director of the orchestra and serve as president of the Music Mission Kyiv.

When Janzen arrived with his family the Ukraine was embroiled in a civil war that was ripping parts of the country apart. It started in 2013 when then Pro-Russian Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych broke off official ties with the European Union to have a closer economic and political connection with Russia.

The move sparked protests across the Ukraine culminating in a 800,000-person Kiev rally opposing Yanukovych. Unlike the Orange Revolution, this time the government responded to the protests with violence. During a 48 hour period in mid-February 2014, government secret police and snipers killed 88 of the protestors.

Mounting protests and world opinion finally forced Yanukovych to flee the country to Russia that same year.

However, Yanukovych supporters within the Ukraine primarily in provinces bordering Russia aided by the Russian military rebelled against the new Ukraine government resulting in continued bloodshed and suffering for Ukrainians.

Much Music Kyiv has stepped in during this time  to give physical and spiritual aid to those affected by the struggle. Some in the orchestra have experienced first hand the violence having been shot at by snipers and aiding those directly hurt by the violence.

In an interview with Christian Week, Janzen said:

“We see the terrible consequence of war every day … internally displaced people, wounded, grieving families.”

Explaining the musical side of the orchestra that performs the Sacred classics, Janzen told

“I sense a call to missions and musical excellence. Music Mission Kiev has introduced the great sacred classics that were forbidden by communism for so many years and to play these great sacred classics is a phenomenal way to communicate Christ’s love.”

Below is an interview with Wes Janzen:

The video below provides an overview of the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine:


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