We’ve seen the photos, the videos, the horror of invasion through our iPhones. And yet, amid the destruction, music continues, it endures—from a child singing “Let it Go” in a makeshift bomb shelter to a soldier playing the country’s national anthem on the violin for their brothers and sisters in arms; it’s an unstoppable force for uniting people, bringing comfort and solace in the darkest of hours, and for spurring action.
Spotlight Artists Management’s March 21, 2002, Benefit Concert to Support Ukraine achieved all three. The singers and instrumentalists were a cross-section of the world, featuring artists from Argentina to Russia to Ukraine; the music—though dark at times—was magnificent and well-performed. The artists delivered the spine-tingling shivers only live music can create, and donations flowed from ticket sales and the generosity of those unable to attend. Whether as a performer or audience member, we were there to stand against aggression and unite to aid the Ukrainian people as they fight for their existence as a democratic nation.
In an email to OperaWire, Spotlight Artists Management’s Co-founder, Natalie Burlutskaya, wrote, “Along with helping victims, it’s also very important to bring awareness about important issues to the broad public. We, the diverse team of artists who represent an array of nations from all over the globe, have a powerful voice to speak up, because music is the international language. Our program comprised music of the world classics, including Russian composers who taught us history and wisdom through their great compositions. Our Benefit Concert featured artists from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, China, Argentina, Croatia, and Turkey. With our performance, we clearly say that we stay together against the war. We stay together for peace, love, friendship, and art. Only together we destroy walls, fakes, and lies to build bridges between people and cultures.”
The Program: Two Acts Explore Heroines, Politics, and Loss
Spotlight Artists’ music advisor, pianist, and coach, Alexander Chaplinskiy, opened the concert with his arrangement of the Ukrainian Anthem, and the audience rose out of respect and support—physically standing with a nation ruthlessly pummeled by a madman. Ukraine is enduring hell but remains proud, determined, and courageous beyond imagination. Though cities lie in ruin, the Ukrainian spirit is unwavering, and its anthem rang out in a small church in Greenwich Village.
The program foregrounded powerful characters, beginning with three heroines who faced severe political forces with determined resistance. These include Tosca, Joan of Arc, and Magda from Menotti’s “The Consul.”
After an interlude featuring “Meditation,” one of Four Pieces for Violin and Piano by S. Bortkiewicz, Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” took center stage, with three arias from the opera: Ulrica’s Aria “Re dell’abisso affrettati;” Amelia’s Aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia;” and Renato’s Aria from Act three.
Summing it up, raw emotion was the game’s name in the first half of the concert.
The concert’s Act two themes shifted from defiance to that of loss and life’s joys, starting with three pieces that explored a different type of politics; those between men and women.
Marguerite’s Aria “Elles se cachaient” (Spinning Wheel Aria) from Gounod’s “Faust,” Aleko’s Aria from Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko,” and “Amour viens aider ma faiblesse” from Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Delilah,” all highlighted the intricacies and fragility of relationships, that, in at least these selections, led to severe loss. Marguerite becomes an outcast after Faust impregnates her; Aleko despairs over his wife’s infidelity, and Delilah betrays Samson. All of it was heavyweight material.
But then, in the middle portion of Act two, the clouds broke. Reflection, humor, hope, beauty, and peace flowed, leaving the turmoil behind. Schubert composed “Der Lindenbaum” from “Die Winterreise” as a meditation. The well-known African-American spiritual, “Deep River,” expanded upon the same, while “Non so più cosa son” from “Le nozze di Figaro” injected a dose of humor. “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story” explored hope, and Ennio Blacks and Cesare Andrea Bixio’s song “Parlami d’amore, Mariu,” celebrated the beauty of Mary—Bixio’s wife. Opera’s most serene number, “Barcarolle,” from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” carried the set to a tranquil conclusion.
Though officially split into two parts, the concert also had what I consider an epilogue; one that celebrated Ukraine. Husband and wife collaborators, pianist Yuliya Basis and violinist Andy Didorenko performed his composition, “Reminiscence,” a piece dedicated to his hometown, Dnipro, in Ukraine, and mezzo-soprano Galina Ivannikova presented the final vocal performance, a Ukrainian folksong, “Black Brows.”
How did it all end? With a rockstar Russian pianist, playing a Russian composer’s stirring musical portrait of The Great Gate of Kiev. Alexander Chaplinskiy’s fingers were the vehicles through which his heart, energy, and soul existed within Mussorgsky’s notes. I want to believe its proud melody, played so powerfully, sprang across the ocean and into the ears of a very proud people.
The Vocal Artists
Note: Artist comments are in order of first appearance.
The marvelous sound of the human instrument swelled the small church and a dash of reverb afforded the music some hang time. Every vocalist incorporated movement into their performance and brought the character whose arias they sang to life, imbuing the songs with their spirit, like soprano Dilara Unsal, who, in a red, off-the-shoulder gown finished with a flower tiara embodied the defiant diva to begin the evening with “Vissi d’Arte,” filling the space with ear-tingling lines full of poignancy.
Mezzo-soprano Galina Ivannikova gave full voice to Tchaikovsky’s heroine from “The Maid d’Orleans,” Joan of Arc, invoking the character’s utter sadness at saying farewell to her homeland. (It’s worth noting Tchaikovsky orchestrated portions of the score while spending spring and summer at various estates in Ukraine). Ivannikova made a second appearance at the end of the program, singing the Ukrainian folksong, “Black Brows,” wearing a traditional Ukrainian dress.
Spotlight Artists Co-founder, soprano Zoya Gramagin, paced the stage, trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare of idiotic paperwork as she sang wild notes of agitation in “Papers,” from Menotti’s “The Consul.” Gramagin later took the stage to sing Amelia’s Aria from “Un Ballo,” laying down a blanket of sound as she proceeded her lament; begging Renato to allow her to see her son one final time before he kills her. Gramagin’s third number was quite the opposite as she sang Offenbach’s serenade to Venice alongside soprano Sara Pearson, their voices swirling serenely, drifting along like a gondola gently rowed.
Mezzo-soprano Ema Mitrovic laid down a plush carpet of notes, performing Ulrica’s Aria from “Un Ballo.” The tessitura’s low end dropped into the contralto range where she voiced both authority and menace. Mitrovic returned in Act two of the program and performed “Amour viens aider ma faiblesse,” from “Samson et Delilah.”
Rounding out the “Un Ballo” excerpts was American Verdi baritone, Jonathan R. Green, who sang Renato’s aria, with a voice filled to the brim with molten rage followed by tenderness and warmth as he looked back on happier memories lost forever.
Bass-baritone Joseph Parrish has a mature, mellow tone that just rumbles at the bottom of his range. He displayed utter confidence in the highly exposed a capella opening bars. Parrish returned later in the program and performed “Deep River” with a voice as deep as the river about which he sang.
Sara Pearson also soloed, singing Gounod’s Spinning Wheel Aria from “Faust.” A frantic piano line evokes the spinning wheel and Marguerite’s frenetic thoughts. Faust has abandoned her after birthing his child. Pearson showed confidence in the upper registers of this piece, nailing the high B.
Representing the tenors, Xi Chen brought art song into the mix with a nuanced performance of “Der Lindenbaum” where he ranged freely from dreamy to grandeur. Xi’s second piece, “Parlami d’amore, Mariu,” was a celebration of co-composer Cesare Andrea Bixio’s wife. Xi showed off his clarion top notes and infused his interpretation with the lushness a song about beauty deserves.
Mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza charmed with her Cherubino, whipping through the Allegro Vivace, “Non so più cosa son,” her diction clear as a bell through such a fast passage and she showed fearlessness in this tricky, high tessitura number that reaches above the stave. Forteza selected for her second song, “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story.” It’s fitting that my review ends with this song. Yes, it’s a love song—one that’s hopeful as it looks toward the future. Forteza’s performance had a yearning for peace and reconciliation, and soared toward that place, toward somewhere where we can find that “new way of living.”