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Ukraine benefit concert combines classical performances with folk music and dance from war-torn country

Event to be held Friday at Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium
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Posted at 5:09 PM, Apr 06, 2022

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

Those words were spoken by composer and lifelong humanitarian Leonard Bernstein, the son of Ukrainian-Jewish parents. An event being held in Cleveland this week will embody those words.

A diverse array of musicians and performers, many of whom have direct ties to Ukraine, are joining forces to raise funds to support the embattled country by doing what they do best at a benefit concert in Cleveland on Friday.

The benefit concert is titled Sonyashnyk, the Ukrainian word for “sunflower,” which is the country’s national flower and has largely become a symbol of the population’s resistance against the unprovoked invasion by Russian forces over six weeks ago. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium, and will feature classical music from several Cleveland ensembles and artists, including members of the Cleveland Orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Piano Cleveland, which represents the Cleveland International Piano Competition, and Grammy-winning Emanuel Ax.

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Brian Kay with Apollo's Fire, one of the performers at the benefit concert Friday.

The event will also feature traditional Ukrainian folk dance ensemble Kashtan, Ukrainian choir Zorya, and Eastern European folk and gypsy music from Harmonia.

“I think for us, and for many other people all around the world, it's been very, very difficult to watch images and videos of Ukraine's battered cities,” said Narcisz Fejes, a lecturer and teaching fellow at Case Western Reserve University who is one of the organizers of the benefit concert. “The trapped citizens, the refugees, and we were compelled to do something.”

Fejes and other organizers were roused to action when they saw how other large cities around the world were supporting Ukraine.

“It was just wonderful to see what can happen when people, large groups and cities unite and come together just to show support for their fellow human beings,” Fejes said. “And Cleveland is home to so many world-renowned institutions…So it just made sense for us to be thinking about drawing on those resources to put together something for the city, for our own Ukrainian neighbors here, and to be able to help overseas.”

(Left to right) Ralitsa Georgieva, Lorenzo Salvagni and Narcisz Fejes, three Cleveland educators and organizers of the benefit concert, speak to News 5 via Zoom about the event on Friday.

Proceeds from the event will be split among three organizations providing direct aid and support to Ukrainians: the Cleveland Maidan Association, the World Central Kitchen and Global Giving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.

The concert will be in two parts: traditional classical music followed by performances by Ukrainian artists.

“It will be, besides the humanitarian scope and effort, an amazing concert,” said Lorenzo Salvagni, a lecturer of Italian at John Carroll University, the music director at Holy Rosary Church in Little Italy and an organizer of the concert alongside Fejes, his wife. “It's really these artists have been so generous in their response, so it's been overwhelming and we have a show that is, yes, part classical music, but there will be also the second part that will be most Ukrainian artists, and I think it will be an occasion also to learn something about Ukrainian culture and art.”

Among the many artists who have agreed to perform at the concert is Emanuel Ax, a Grammy-winning classical pianist who was born in Lviv, now part of Ukraine. Ax is scheduled to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend on April 7, 9 and 10 as part of his national tour.

Polish born pianist Emanuel Ax, who now lives in New York, performs during a concert at the Lucerne Festival Piano in Lucerne, Switzerland, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Keystone/Urs Flueeler)

“He accepted enthusiastically to be part of this initiative. We found out that he was here that weekend. It was just an amazing coincidence,” Salvagni said.

Ralitsa Georgieva, one of the organizers of the concert, described the style of Ukrainian music and dance performed by the Zorya and Kashtan ensembles as unique and beautiful.

“Everyone who comes on Friday is going to see just incredible patterns of steps [and] music. The costumes are just so beautiful — engaging — and just something that every time I see the performances of Ukrainian dance and the music that goes with that, it's just something so, so different than anything we can expect — just incredible — the energy, the beauty and the uniqueness," said Georgieva, who is also a piano faculty member at Laurel School Music Academy, and founder and artistic director of Music for Our Children, a benefit concert series in support of UNICEF.

Zorya sings the popular melody of "Carol of the Bells," in the Ukrainian language with different lyrics.

In addition to traditional Ukrainian folk music and dance, Alexander Fedoriouk, a world-famous cimbalom player, will play the impressive instrument that is associated with Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.

“It looks a little bit like a marimba, but it's thunderous,” Salvagni said. "Instead of mallets, it has strings, and it sounds a little bit like a guitar or a clavichord, but it's amazing — the speed and the quality.”

The concert will be enhanced by a unique visual element, as well, said Georgieva.

“This event, particularly, is not focusing just on music performances, but there will be dance,” Georgieva said. “There will be visual images projected on screen as well. So it is going to be a performance that anyone, really, in the city who feels compassionate and really wanting to help the people of Ukraine can find their thing…This is something for everyone, for any age.”

One of the three organizations benefiting from the concert is the Cleveland Maidan Association, which has already provided significant direct support to Ukrainians directly impacted by the invasion.

“They put together lots of different medical aid kits and other kinds of essentials, and they were actually sending those on the planes and many of their staff members are actually on the ground in Ukraine and distributing those goods,” Fejes said.

Funds from the concert will also go to World Central Kitchen, formed by renowned Spanish-American chef Jose Andres in 2010 in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He’s now working to feed Ukrainians on the front lines at Ukraine’s border with Poland alongside celebrated Cleveland chef Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant.

The third organization benefiting from the event is Global Giving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.

“This is an organization that's actually distributing money to smaller and bigger organizations that are on the ground,” Fejes said. "And some of them are actually kind of out of the media eye, for example, the organizations that are taking care of pediatric cancer patients who are refugees. And so this is a very well-known organization and have been very trusted to be sending the money where the money is needed.”

With over 300 tickets sold, and sales picking up significantly in the last few days, Salvagni said they've already raised over $33,000, and hope to raise even more for these organizations.

"What we are seeing is a city with open arms and an enormous amount of generosity," Fejes said. "Every institution opened their doors, and musicians and artists are coming to support a cause, but every citizen here opened their hearts to support this benefit, and we thank everyone for their support."

Promotional image for Sonyashnyk - A Benefit for Ukraine

While they were affected by images and accounts of the devastation in Ukraine, this cause is very personal for organizers Fejes, Salvagni and Georgieva.

“All of us, all three of us had friends and people that we know, colleagues who were affected by the war,” Fejes said. “For example, Lorenzo was working with musicians in the Ukrainian community, even in some of his previous work. And as soon as we started thinking about this event, we really did reach out to some of these friends and some of these musicians. And since, for example, I am from Hungary, it's happening right next to us, and we have also personally known people who were fleeing or being affected by the war.”

One of Georgieva’s private music students is a young boy from Ukraine, and a few days after the war broke out, his mother broke down in tears in front her.

“She was telling me her family is stuck in the city where they cannot move because the cities - basically, they will not stop bombing,” Georgieva said.

Desperate to help, Georgieva offered the mother free music lessons so that she could send the tuition money to her family in Ukraine. The mother then told Georgieva about the work the Cleveland Maidan Association is doing to help Ukraine, which became an impetus for the benefit concert.

Salvagni said that he and Fejes used to produce music at a studio in Cleveland with a Ukrainian pianist who now lives in Toronto.

“I reached out to her and she, herself, put together another fundraiser to help people in Ukraine, and she has connections, clearly with relatives in Ukraine,” he said. "And so I think we're just all connected and we recognize the importance of doing something together as musicians, as artists. And it's beautiful also to see how music can bring people together when there is a certain sense of helplessness. You know, at least this is one way where we can get together, reconnect and somehow find a concrete way also to help others.”

You can purchase tickets for the benefit concert here, and visit the concert's Facebook page for more details and artists profiles.

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