Olga Yefremova, brought up in a family of Old Believers in Odessa, surprised her parents when she was five by reproducing on the piano a Bach toccata she had heard on the radio. She had perfect pitch, and quickly learnt to write down both the melody and harmony of music she liked. From the ages of seven to 14 she spent her mornings at School No 117, a grim pile decorated with a bust of Lenin and the motto "To learn! To learn! To learn!"
Her afternoons she spent at Music School No 1, where, as she puts it, "a terrible teacher" insisted that she play the piano with mechanical accuracy. She went on to music college, specialised in the organ, and became seriously good at it. She married and had a son: to allow her to continue her studies, her husband abandoned his own and worked as a waiter. She began to teach the organ at the Odessa Conservatoire, and gave intermittent recitals in St Petersburg.
David Titterington, organ professor at the Royal Academy in London, happened to see a video of Yefremova in action. "You could see the passionate musicianship, she brought to everything she played." Realising she couldn't afford the high fees to study in London, he got her a bursary for a course at the Bavarian Music Academy, where the Swiss organist Lionel Rogg heard her and offered her a two-year scholarship to Geneva.
But, despite the fact that she had guaranteed funds and a place to live, and made repeated pilgrimages by train from Odessa to the Swiss consulate in Kiev, her visa was blocked by the Swiss authorities. "They mistrust Ukrainians. They think we're all part of the mafia," she says in halting English.
In the week when she finally accepted this defeat, she suffered a parallel setback: Odessa's electricity supply became so feeble that it could no longer drive the conservatoire's organ - the only one in town.
By now, however, wires were buzzing in the organ world, and two members of the Bolton Organ Society, Mavis and Bernard Carney, came to the rescue. "We had heard a tape of her playing, and we knew of her distress," says Mrs Carney. "And in Bolton, frankly, we've got more organs than we know what to do with." They put her up and financed a week's advanced training for her at Dartington, where she practised under Titterington's supervision from dawn to dusk. She has now won an eight-month bursary for further study in Finland.
All very well, but it leaves the central problem: she can't bring her family out of Odessa, and she can't make her living by music there, not with an organ that doesn't play.
Yet Yefremova is one of the lucky few. Titterington says that some Russian organists he has taught don't know how to use the swell pedal at all because they've never seen one that works. His opposite number in Moscow is having to teach on an electronic instrument - his pipe organ has packed up on him.
Asked to identify Yefremova's particular style, Titterington says: "A controlled severity, a grittiness. Fire." How does he rate her chances of making a career in the West? "That's irrelevant. Not because there are a lot of good organists here and not many openings, but because players with her experience and talent are desperately needed back home. She should become an ambassador for the organ in Russia and the Ukraine."Reuse content