By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the audience and on the stage, the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag fluttered. At the Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide on April 4, the Seattle Symphony, Conductor Ludovic Morlot, and Ukrainian singers and dancers performed for free to support the cause.
“We have come together…because we see that the need is dire for just essential resources as the people of Ukraine…face displacement from their homes and also from their homeland,” said emcee Joyce Taylor of KING 5, to a concert hall packed with VIPs.
Co-hosting the event were Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and 36 King County mayors, including Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon, who said it was “heartening” to see these mayors join with Harrell “to denounce the violence against the Ukraine and acknowledge the hardships refugees from around the world experience.” Aragon explained that “many AAPI refugees who have resettled in the Puget Sound region have been through the same trauma and hardships. The crisis in the Ukraine brings the refugee experience to light.”
Seattle Symphony cellist Nathan Chan spoke similarly in a recent interview.
“The week that Russia went to war with Ukraine was a particularly poignant week to be making music. The whole world was on a…precipice of ‘is this really what everything has come to?’” Chan described the immediate action that Seattle and King County took, such as the Symphony playing the Ukrainian National Anthem at events even prior to the Mayors’ Concert.
“Even though it doesn’t seem like much, it’s one small thing we as musicians can do to show our support and solidarity for something that is genuinely so terrible that’s happening in the world.”
The thought of what might be happening in the Ukraine right now hung poignant in the air. Symphony President Krishna Thiagarajan kept his introduction succinct by quoting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from his surprise appearance at the Grammy’s the night before.
“Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them, but the music will break through anyway.” Thiagarajan then continued in his own words, “Music can transcend language barriers and it takes over when words fail us…Music can also restore hope and faith in humanity.” He explained that the music chosen for the evening highlighted “the quest for self-determination and freedom.”
Morlot then came to the stage, a blue-and-yellow ribbon pinned to his lapel. The concert began with a piece by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (“Finlandia”) that was created as a protest against the Russian Empire—at that time, against censorship, but a stronger message could not have been sent as the starting volley of the evening. The program moved from there into a Ukrainian “Welcome Dance,” performed by Barvinok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. The dancers, in traditional costume, received a standing ovation when they held up the Ukrainian flag.
Next came the music of two Ukrainian composers. “Melody” by Myroslav Skoryk, who was awarded the titles People’s Artist of Ukraine and Hero of Ukraine, seemed a patriotic choice, confirmed by the moving nature of the music itself; while a more delicate, meditative piece by Valentin Silvestrov faded to a silence that was so thick you could hear it.
“It has been so long since I heard live music,” Taylor said. “It transports us…It is a universal language…Tonight it has truly allowed us to do something so wonderful, to support people who are facing challenges.”
70% of funds raised this night would go towards helping Ukrainians abroad and in King County, while 30% would go towards other refugees locally. In his remarks, Harrell extolled the good nature of Washingtonians.
“We are a welcoming city…Washington has been one of the top 10 states for accepting refugees…I am asking that our city lead the country in opening our hearts.” He continued with his own reasons for taking a stand. “As Mayor, I have no tolerance for hate, destruction, bigotry, or small mindedness…we are claiming our greatness this evening, we are claiming the best version of ourselves.”
Harrell had already issued an Executive Order to Support the People of Ukraine on March 7 to “direct City departments to take action to assist communities impacted by the unjustified and violent invasion of Ukraine.” As he elaborated on the Symphony stage, “…threats to democracy deserve our attention and our involvement…What has made us great is not that we pound our chest and suppress the rights of others, but that we open our hearts and welcome immigrants and refugees.”
“Putin and his army don’t value people’s lives. They came to kill, to destroy, and to steal,” said Honorary Consul General of Ukraine in Seattle, Valeriy Goloborodko. “That is a tragedy. But through this tragedy, we are blessed with friends…who do everything possible to help the people of Ukraine and to help civilians and innocents, to save their lives and to get through this war together to victory…to the victory of life.”
Feelings ran high throughout the night. The Ukrainian United Choir sang a “Prayer for Ukraine” in perfect harmony, in spite of wearing masks, backs straight and chins up; then moved into “The Mighty Dnieper,” a song about the large river that flows through Ukraine. The song rose and fell like an angry storm had taken hold of that river and of the wind that “howls and raves,” making one think of wartime, while lyrics such as “The roosters don’t crow…there’s not as yet a sound of man” or “the owls in the glades call out their warnings” lent an ominous feel. People in the audience yelled out in what might have been Ukrainian and only just settled down when the Symphony launched into the finale piece by Beethoven, “Fidelio” or the “Leonore Overture.”
There was sadness and tension on this meaningful evening, but like the heroine of “Fidelio,” who disguises herself to rescue her husband from where he is held as a political prisoner, there was hope of eventual triumph. As many have remarked since the start of the conflict, Ukrainians have been steadfast in their resolve in the face of invasion and they demonstrated this resolve on the stage.
“In Ukraine, we have a proverb,” Goloborodko said. “Going through a sorrow with a friend, you are dividing the sorrow in half. Going through a joy with a friend, you are making double of this joy. We are grateful for…all the friends who are gathered here and all the support we have. Goloborodko concluded that if Seattle and King County could help the Ukrainians now, in this time of sorrow, then “we are sure that soon a time of joy will come.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.