MOSCOW — REHEARSING a passage of Shostakovitch on the stage of a dusty Moscow theater, the Kiren Russian Symphony Orchestra looks like any other Russian ensemble, struggling to get by in hard economic times.
But these are the highest paid classical musicians in the country. Kiren means ''salvation,'' and the orchestra belongs to Aum Shinri Kyo, the shadowy Japanese sect that has been linked to last week's poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
Although the orchestra does have a classical repertoire, its central purpose is to play ''astral music'' written by a lesser known composer, Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinri Kyo.
''Now we are living from payday to payday. We are very concerned about our future,'' says Valeri Grigoryev, a former police department lawyer who manages the orchestra.
The symphony orchestra -- which includes some of Russia's most talented musicians -- is only one of the apocalyptic sect's odder manifestations in Russia.
Claiming 30,000 members here, Aum Shinri Kyo also has some high-level contacts in the Kremlin, according to press reports. Aides to Oleg Lobov, secretary of President Boris Yeltsin's powerful Security Council, admit that he met Mr. Asahara, but deny allegations that he helped arrange Asahara's visit here in 1992 and helped the sect establish itself.
With five centers in Moscow, one in the Caucasus, regular radio and television broadcasts -- not to mention its symphony orchestra -- Aum Shinri Kyo has been one of the most visible fringe religious groups that have sprung up in Russia since communism's collapse.
The sect's tenets -- described by followers as a melange of Buddhist meditation, Hindu yoga, sensory deprivation, and doomsday predictions -- appear to have found a receptive audience among spiritually deprived or confused Russians.
Aum Shinri Kyo hit the headlines here earlier this year when a group of parents filed suit against the sect, alleging that its members had abducted their children.
The case, echoing charges against the sect in Japan, is still being heard in a Moscow court.
BUT most members of the orchestra, which pays up to $12,000 a year when many classical musicians do not earn a quarter as much, appear to have little to do with the organization that pays them.
Asked how many of the orchestra's current 67 members belong to the sect, Mr. Grigoryev insists that ''all of them are followers. It is written in their contracts that they have to be believers.
''But how many of them believe in their heart, I couldn't tell you,'' he adds.
According to one former member of the orchestra, who said he was sacked three months ago for being obstructive, most musicians simply played chess or chatted during the obligatory three hours of videotaped sermon that preceded daily rehearsals.
''I like detective novels, and I read more during the year I worked for Aum Shinri Kyo than ever before,'' says the brass player, who asked not to be named.
The musicians' reluctance to get involved with the sect led to a major confrontation during a tour of Japan last December, according to Grigoryev.
When sect officials decided that the musicians should be initiated into the fellowship in a four-hour ceremony at headquarters near Mt. Fuji involving vibrating mattresses and Sanskrit mantras, some orchestra members rebelled, he said.
''Japanese members of Aum Shinri Kyo told us that normally people paid $10,000 for the initiation, and that we were lucky to be getting it as a gift,'' the brass player recalls. ''Somebody asked if we could have the money instead.''
Such disrespect so infuriated Asahara that eventually he called off the initiation. Half the orchestra was fired soon afterward, according to Grigoryev.
Performances -- held normally in municipal ''cultural palaces'' -- comprise both classical music and one of Asahara's five symphonies, the melodies of which he claims to have heard from astral sources.
The astral music ''made us smile,'' says one former orchestra member, ''but it was easy to play, and for the amount of money they were paying we would have played anything.'' He described it as easy-listening romantic music with some hummable tunes.
Now the Mayak radio station that once broadcast astral music around Russia twice a day has taken it off the air. On Tuesday, a Moscow court froze the assets of Aum Shinri Kyo's branches in Russia and confiscated their property. If a Japanese court does find the sect guilty of the poison-gas attack, its future here looks bleak.
But Grigoryev remains optimistic. ''If Aum Shinri Kyo is disbanded, then we could find a new sponsor and register under a new name,'' he says. ''I don't think our background need be a problem.''