The lyrical opera ensemble performs for the students of the St. Nicholas School in the Ukrainian village
Two elementary school students tapped their ears and winced as the musicians started playing Beethoven’s septet. A girl raised her hands in the air as if leading.
At the edge of the jagged circle surrounding the seven members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, 6-year-old Andrew Raczkiewycz gazed into the distance. He sometimes cast an anxious glance at his mother, who had also come to see the performance on Friday at the school of St. Nicholas Cathedral in the Ukrainian village.
It wouldn’t have been surprising if the boy had other things on his mind. Eight months ago he was huddled in a windowless bathroom in a high-rise building in Kyiv as Russian bombs began to fall.
“You need to have at least two walls because if a bomb hits you will be safer than if you were by the window,” the boy’s mother, Olena Raczkiewycz, 43, said in broken English.
Andrew, his older brother Arsen, 12, and his mother fled Ukraine to Chicago and stayed in an apartment in the Ukrainian village. Her husband, a journalist, remains in Ukraine, she said.
On Friday, Andrew and Arsen were among some 200 primary school students – including 68 other Ukrainian refugee children – who gathered in the school gymnasium to listen to the lyrical musicians. The set was part of a much larger concert in April that raised funds to help support several of the families who moved from war-torn Ukraine to Chicago.
The musicians played in a gym decorated in a sea of blue and yellow with banners reading: “Glory to the heroes”, “Ukraine never gives up” and “Say no to war”.
Apparently not everyone is a fan of Beethoven.
“I just wanted to sleep,” Arsen said afterwards.
Sophia Turchmanovych, 12, born in the United States and whose parents and sister were born in Ukraine, called the music “very beautiful”.
“It puts you in a bit of an emotional state because of everything that’s going on out there right now,” she said. “It made me feel better about people supporting us.”
When the musicians started playing the Ukrainian national anthem, all the children and teachers stood up, hands on their hearts, the sound of their voices filling the gymnasium to the rafters.
“Just hearing them sing the anthem with us was very, very emotional. Music is such a powerful way to bring people together and singing together is really one of those remarkable things,” said violist Melissa Kirk.
Says Preman Tilson, the Lyric’s lead bassoonist: “You feel so helpless when you hear about what’s going on there. It’s so awful. To be able to do something tangible, to actually help kids get out and get to a safe place is just incredibly satisfying.
Raczkiewycz said her children are adjusting well to life in Chicago. She said she remembers driving 22 hours in a Ford Escape to the western part of Ukraine the day after the shelling began in Kyiv.
“Children are calm when their parents are calm. Parents should be like a mountain for kids,” Raczkiewycz said, flexing his biceps.
St. Nicholas Principal Anna Cirilli said the refugee students are doing well, but trauma still surfaces at times. The children’s works are less dark, darker, she says.
“We’re starting to see more colorful [drawings],” she said. “These memories are not that recent, but there are different kinds of trauma that come out – maybe not in the paintings, but in the daily interactions with each other: hair pulling , fighting with fists, kicking,” Cirilli said. “It’s the trauma that comes out in the normal way, with no language to express. support them and give them some love. Today is a perfect example of that.”