February 24. Iryna Usova ’16MA clearly enunciates each syllable when she mentions the date because she’ll never forget it. Neither will millions of Ukrainians whose lives were abruptly turned upside down just before dawn broke on that day.
“We did not want to believe it would happen,” Usova says of the weeks and hours leading up to the Russian military attack, “until the moment it actually happened.”
Usova had no choice but to leave her home in Odessa, where she’d grown an appreciation for the beach and the beautiful performing arts center there. She rushed into a small car with her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew. They had to flee the explosions but weren’t sure where to go. They started west before realizing the road would be too dangerous. So, they turned toward Moldova, hoping to find safety (Moldova would be recommended for acceptance into the European Union four months later).
The car had room only for the five of them, their personal documents, and one item Usova grabbed as a lifeline on her way out the door: her violin.
“It’s been a part of me, like my soul, since I was 5 years old,” she says.
After staying one night in a lonely far-away motel, Usova and her family stood in a line of people as long as they could see, all of them trying to cross the border into Europe. A woman happened to notice Usova and the violin and offered shelter in her home. The next morning, after two sleepless nights, Usova pulled out the violin and filled the woman’s home with the same sounds that she’d previously filled venues in Spain, Italy, France, Ukraine and the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts in Orlando.
“In Ukraine,” Usova says. “Music is part of our education at a very early age. All people, regardless of wealth or status, can enjoy orchestras, operas, and ballets. It is like fresh air for us. At a time of such danger, people needed the fresh air.”
Usova played her violin every day while the rumbling continued. She’d see faces break into uncommon smiles as soon as she’d draw the bow across the strings.
“Music and the arts are markers of national identity in Ukraine,” says UCF professor of history Vladimir Solonari. Identity is not a simple concept in that region. Solonari’s parents are Ukrainian. He was born and raised in Moldova when it was still part of the Soviet Union, so he was educated in a Russian culture. “Ukrainians did not create a highbrow culture, so the arts can be used as a rallying cry. The music touches your feelings. It can serve as a mobilizing tool in public squares and less obvious spaces.”
Tucked deep under the news alerts about Russian raids and rubble in the streets, you could find a social video post of a Ukrainian soldier playing a violin for fellow troops in a small bunker. A luthier sent out a newsletter saying he was still hand-crafting violins even as alarms resonated across his neighborhood, not to keep up with demand but for “the sake of art and for stress relief.” With the ground rumbling, music rehearsals and performances played on in places where you’d least expect them.
“For us, the arts can provide moments of peace and harmony,” Usova says. “They remind us of our love for our culture and country. The people performing are seen as messengers of goodwill.”
She says this as she prepares for her next performance in another unexpected venue: the St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Oviedo, Florida. On Thursday, Aug. 25, at 2:30 p.m., Usova and other acclaimed musicians will perform in the sanctuary, chosen for its near-perfect acoustics, to raise awareness and financial support.
Who better to raise awareness of the conditions in Ukraine than the young woman who fled her home in the darkness, clutching a violin?
History and Music Repeat
Just talking about the war tires Usova and makes her understandably sad. Most of her family is either in Europe or Ukraine. It’s easy to suggest that they leave, but Usova reminds everyone that it wasn’t easy for her to part from the people and country she loves.
“It’s home, and our freedom is at stake,” she says.
She talks about her circumstances more comfortably when they intersect with the subject of music. She describes first hearing a violin note at the age of 5, when she says, “everything inside me turned at once, like magic.” During her earliest lessons, she imagined herself playing on stage. She earned international awards and several music degrees in Ukraine before learning of a sunny campus in America with highly regarded music instructors, a place called UCF.
One of those instructors, Ayako Yonetani, saw hints of herself in Usova.
“I could see she was very passionate, very driven,” Yonetani says. “She even shared her love for violin by teaching younger people.”
While working toward her master’s degree in music, Usova gave lessons to Natalie Morris, a daughter in her host family. When Usova’s visa expired in 2016 and she returned to Ukraine, she continued giving lessons via Skype. As the threat of war grew, she used the connection as her outlet from reality. Then, three months after Russia’s initial attack, while still in shelter, Usova learned that the Morris family had been able to sponsor her return to Central Florida.
Yonetani was among the first people to reach out to Usova. The two of them met for tea near the UCF campus.
“Five days earlier she’d been in Ukraine. I could tell she was very sad to be without her family, so we talked about music to keep her mind busy.”
Yonetani knows very well the heavy toll of war on civilians and how music can provide hope during recovery. Her own parents introduced her to the violin when she was a 5-year-old in Kobe, Japan. They’d come out of WWII with absolutely nothing. Music and the arts became integral in rebuilding the country.
“Parents in Japan knew that music could expand the minds of their children, allow a better education, and lead them out of poverty,” Yonetani says. “My violin became my identity. I would never want to lose it.”
When Usova and Yonetani met in May, the UCF campus was the opposite of Ukraine: quiet and safe. Usova shared how she’d escaped home with her violin. Yonetani mentioned a trove of music that had been donated to her. They talked about doing a concert together. This time it would be for a cause.
“My mother is in her 90s now,” Yonetani says. “She still has nightmares about being a young girl during war, hungry and alone. People who have never had that kind of experience need to be aware. We also need to understand the peace that music can bring to such a situation.”
On Aug. 25, barely six months after the first bombs forced Iryna and her family from a home they might never see again, she’ll perform with the same violin she carried to safety. There will be performers from Honduras and Iowa. UCF’s Pegasus String Quartet will play. Yonetani will play. Natalie Morris will play. And so will masters student Ekaterina Iskhakova, who arrived at UCF earlier in August from Russia.
“The country you are from doesn’t matter,” Usova says. “What is in your heart is what matters. When music is in your heart, it builds bridges and brings people together like few things in life can do.”
A Ballet to Remember
On Saturday, Aug. 27, two days after the concert at St. Luke’s, the Ukrainian National Ballet will perform a sold-out event at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Marc McMurrin of the Ginsburg Family Foundation raised the funds for the company to travel and share their artistry with the world during this tumultuous time for Ukraine. McMurrin’s interest in Ukrainian arts is personal; his father Roger McMurrin was the founding conductor of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra in 1991. Then, on Monday, Aug. 29, the ballet will perform a free exhibition in the UCF Pegasus Ballroom, followed by a conversation with the dancers about their artistry and experiences. This event is open to the public. For additional details and to register, visit the UCF events page.
An Important Discussion
On Wednesday, Sept. 7, UCF Global and the UCF Center for the Study of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery is hosting a discussion on the current humanitarian and human rights situation in Ukraine. Shawn Sullivan, president of Mission 823, an organization actively involved in the reduction and elimination of human trafficking that has provided humanitarian assistance following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The event is held in room 101 of the Barbara Ying Center at 10 a.m. For additional details and to register, visit tinyurl.com/ukraine-human-rights-crises