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'You can feel the Ukrainian spirit': Concert brings western Mass. Ukrainians closer to home

The Khimchinski family, who immigrated from western Ukraine last summer, attending a performance of the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine at UMass Amherst on Feb. 10, 2023.
Dusty Christensen
The Khimchinski family, who immigrated from western Ukraine last summer, attending a performance of the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine at UMass Amherst on Feb. 10, 2023.

Nearly a year after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a crowd of 800 packed into the Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hall at UMass Amherst to see the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine perform.

It was the venue's biggest classical-music crowd since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Perogies and chicken Kyiv croquettes were on the menu Friday evening as VIPs rubbed shoulders in the lobby ahead of the concert. They were sipping drinks and hoping for a chance to get to meet the conductor, Theodore Kuchar, who got caught in traffic and wasn’t able to attend the meet-and-greet.

“It’s very special to see how many people came out and how much attention it gets,” said Bogdan Prokopovych, a senior lecturer in the Isenberg School of Management, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 2006. “These days I think every Ukrainian feels the same way: that the more attention it gets, the more unity we get against the disaster that has been happening to us since last February.”

Squeezing their way through the same crowd were the Khimchinski family, who immigrated from western Ukraine just last summer, fleeing the dangers of war. Skipping the pre-performance party, they were more concerned with finding their seats.

Under martial law, most men are prohibited from leaving Ukraine. But Ihor Khimchinskyy explained that because he and his wife Olha have three children, he was among those the government allows to cross the border. So in August, he and his family made the difficult decision to move abroad.

“There’s a war going on right now in Ukraine, and because I served in the military in Ukraine there was constantly the threat of going to war,” he told NEPM, in Ukrainian. “And so to avoid that threat, we came to the United States.”

Olha and Ihor said life in the states has been good. Their kids are adjusting well to school — in West Springfield — and they've received lots of support through Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts.

“When we arrived at school, they immediately gave us an interpreter,” said Emma, the family’s middle child. “I wouldn’t say it’s been difficult.”

Like her dad, Emma plays music and was excited to see if the orchestra included any xylophone on Friday.

Although school has been easy for the kids, Olha said starting their lives anew in a foreign country has been a challenge in other ways.

“Morally, it's a little hard because every day we think about our house, about Ukraine, about what’s happening in the war,” she said. The family prays and calls home often, she added. “We have to live with this.”

So when they heard a Ukrainian orchestra would be playing down the road, and they could get free tickets, the Khimchinskis went for it.

Friday’s performance featured the solo violinist Andriy Tchaikovsky playing a stunning rendition of Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann’s Violin Concerto. The UMass Fine Arts Center billed it as the American premier of the piece, which has striking relevance today amid Russia’s invasion; De Hartmann wrote it in 1943 as a response to the Nazi occupation of Ukraine.

The Khimchinski family sat rapt in the audience, their phones occasionally lighting up their faces as they took videos of their compatriots playing — that is, until an usher told them recording wasn’t allowed.

During intermission, Ihor, who has played in orchestras himself, said he was in awe of Tchaikovsky’s violin chops. Olha echoed those feelings.

“It was very impressive, I liked it a lot, she said. “You can feel the Ukrainian spirit.”

Disclosure: The UMass Fine Arts Center is a sponsor of NEPM. Our newsroom operates independently.

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.