The last time Ukrainian American musician Jurij Fedynskyj performed for San Antonio arts nonprofit Musical Bridges Around the World, he was on a tour titled Kobzaring Across The United States with The Lost Instruments of Ukraine.

Now that much more is being lost in Ukraine due Russia’s lethal invasion, Fedynskyj remains on tour, this time through the war-torn countryside of Ukraine, playing music for residents and members of the military even as bombs drop and tanks roll through city streets.

“We’re going to continue our work here and do what we’ve prepared our lives to do, and that’s to fight the evil horde back through music, through spiritual positive songs and energy and prayer,” Fedynskyj said in a March 8 Facebook post made while in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city. “A big part of our philosophy is not to retreat now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Musical Bridges Around the World (MBAW) is preparing for its eighth annual International Music Festival March 23-27. The festival is being staged at various venues, including MBAW’s regular performance home of San Fernando Cathedral, the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre and on Main Plaza for a Sunday afternoon Family Day event featuring an eclectic mix of Spanish flamenco, American jazz, Mexican mariachi, Indian dance and European Renaissance music.

Close ties

Though several MBAW staff members have ties to both Russia and Ukraine, this year’s festival will not feature music from either country. Founding director Anya Grokhovski, who was born in Moscow to a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father, said the situation was “a bit too close” and that the festival is meant to focus on music rather than politics.

Artistic Coordinator Elena Portnaya’s mother was born in Ukraine, then moved to Russia and married her Muscovite father. Both live in Moscow, and “they are terrified,” Portnaya said.

Most of her other relatives live in Ukraine, including her 93-year-old grandfather, a resident of Kyiv.

“All men in my family who are in Ukraine, they cannot leave the country,” Portnaya said, because males aged 18 to 60 are required under martial law to stay and fight against the Russian military. “I have a second cousin who is a saxophone player. He is 22 years old, he has to stay. I have another second cousin, I have an uncle there. They all have to stay. So far, they have food, they have electricity, internet. But we are very worried. Anything can happen.”

People, not Putin

Grokhovski and Portnaya were visibly shaken when talking about the war in Ukraine while sitting around a conference table in the MBAW headquarters near Loop 1604 in Northwest San Antonio.

Grokhovski said while the situation would be acknowledged in some way during the upcoming festival, she stressed the importance of continuing MBAW’s stated mission to “celebrate our shared humanity” through art and culture.

“I see my role is to show people of the world that the Russian people have not much to do with this,” Grokhovski said, “I would like to separate the government from the people, to show that they pay the consequences.”

However, some Russian musicians are paying a price for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Some with close ties to Putin, such as conductor Valery Gergiev, have been fired from multiple postings with Western orchestras. Even those who have spoken out against the invasion, like 20-year-old pianist Alexander Malofeev, have suffered backlash. Malofeev has been removed from the performance schedule of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, in part because of objections from the city’s Ukrainian community against promoting Russian culture while the conflict rages.

Portnaya said she has been heartened to see statements from competitions that are not banning Russian competitors, including the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, which she said is important given the famous pianist’s role as a musical ambassador during the Soviet era.

Grokhovski and Portnaya encourage anyone interested to learn more about the musical history and culture of Ukraine to watch a video featuring Fedynskyj made for MBAW’s Musical Sprouts youth education program.

All International Music Festival festival events are free and open to the public, but ticket registration is required through MBAW or Eventbrite.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...