Reaching kids, including Ukrainian refugees in Chicago, through Beethoven
Seven members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra played Friday for kids at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village.
A couple of grade schoolers clapped their hands over their ears and winced as the musicians began to play Beethoven’s Septet. One girl lifted her hands in the air as if she were conducting.
At the edge of the ragged circle surrounding the seven members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, Andrew Raczkiewycz, 6, stared off in the distance. He occasionally cast an anxious eye toward his mother, who had also come to watch the performance Friday at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in 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 apartment building in Kyiv as Russian bombs began to fall.
“You must have at least two walls because if a bomb hits, you’ll be safer than if you will be near the window,” the boy’s mother, Olena Raczkiewycz, 43, said in broken English.
Andrew, his older brother, Arsen, 12, and his mother fled Ukraine for Chicago and have been staying in an apartment in Ukrainian Village. Her husband, a journalist, remains in Ukraine, she said.
On Friday, Andrew and Arsen were among the 200 or so grade schoolers — including 68 other Ukrainian refugee children — who gathered in the school’s gym to listen to the Lyric musicians. The ensemble was part of a much larger concert in April that raised money to help support several of the families that have left war-torn Ukraine for 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.”
Not everyone, apparently, is a fan of Beethoven.
“I just wanted to sleep,” Arsen said afterward.
Sophia Turchmanovych, 12, who was born in the United States and whose parents and sister were born in Ukraine, described the music as “very beautiful.”
“It puts you in a little bit of an emotional state because of all that’s happening there right now,” she said. “It made me feel better that people support us.”
When the musicians began playing the Ukrainian national anthem, all the children and teachers rose to their feet, hands on hearts, the sound of their voices filling the gym to the rafters.
“Just hearing them sing the anthem with us was very, very moving. Music is such a powerful way of bringing people together and singing together is really one of those remarkable things,” violist Melissa Kirk said.
Said Preman Tilson, the Lyric’s principal bassoonist: “You feel so helpless when you hear about what’s going on over there. It’s just so terrible. To be able to do something tangible, to actually help the kids get out and get someplace safe is just incredibly satisfying.”
Raczkiewycz said her children are adapting well to life in Chicago. She said she recalls driving 22 hours in a Ford Escape to get to the Western part of Ukraine the day after the shelling in Kyiv began.
“Kids are calm when their parents are calm. Parents need to be like a mountain for kids,” Raczkiewycz said, flexing her biceps.
St. Nicholas Principal Anna Cirilli said the refugee students are doing well, but trauma still surfaces at times. The children’s artwork is less dark, somber, she said.
“We’re starting to see more colorful [drawings],” she said. “Those memories are not so recent, but there are different sorts of traumas that are coming out — maybe not in paintings, but in daily interactions with each other: hair pulling, fist-fighting, kicking,” Cirilli said. “It’s the trauma coming out in ways that is normal, without a language to express. They have this anger inside. So we’re doing a lot to support them and offer some love. Today is a perfect example of that.”