January 31, 2024

Orchestra of Ukraine Concert to be Followed By “Artists in Wartime” Conversation

THE SHOW MUST GO ON: Thanks to a collaborative, behind-the-scenes effort by McCarter Theatre Center and Princeton University, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine has overcome a funding shortage that would have prevented their appearance on February 11.

By Anne Levin

The February 11 appearance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine was booked for McCarter Theatre Center nearly a year ago. But when war broke out in the Middle East last October, adding to the already existing conflict in Ukraine, it became increasingly unlikely that the orchestra would be able to embark on its tour of U.S. locations — most on or affiliated with college campuses.

A representative of the orchestra called McCarter just before the winter holidays. All of the orchestra’s funding for travel and cargo had dwindled, and they were told by the Ukrainian business community that they weren’t going to get the same subsidy. Navigating in and out of a war zone added to the problem.

“They said the situation in Gaza was making everything harder for them, which was completely understandable,” said Paula Abreu, McCarter’s director of presented programming. “The tour was in jeopardy.”

Efforts led by Debbie Bisno, McCarter’s director of university and artistic partnerships, have not only kept the orchestra on the schedule, but have added a relevant post-concert discussion about the realities of being an artist during wartime. Following the 1 p.m. performance in the Matthews Theater, the orchestra’s director Alexander Hornostai and Princeton University visiting scholar Iuliia Skubytska will speak.

“I knew we couldn’t not have them,” Bisno said. “They were about $140,000 in the hole, and were calling each venue to ask for help. In order to meet this gap, each venue on the tour had to commit to 10 percent over what they had originally committed to. That is no small feat for McCarter, since we’re a nonprofit ourselves. So I told them I would get back to them.”

It occurred to Bisno that this was an opportunity for collaboration on a conversation about artists who are at risk, living through a war. She approached the University’s School of Public and International Affairs, its Humanities Council, and the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, where it was recommended that she connect with Lydia Zaininger, executive director the Ukrainian Institute of America and a Princeton alumnus.

“Lydia called some Ukrainian friends, and within a week we had mobilized the effort,” Bisno said. “We called them [the orchestra representative] back and said we were in.”

The post-concert conversation, which no other venues on the orchestra’s tour had requested, inspired aid from Zaininger, the Liechtenstein Institute, The Olsen Foundation, George and Ellen Casey, and Steve and Linda Gecha.

“None of these people were subscribers or contributors to McCarter in the past,” Bisno said. “Lydia was the anchor. She created a domino effect. She opened the door to new friends. She knew people in the community who were Ukraine-connected. This is a really wonderful example of how the community and the campus came together, and McCarter served as a bridge to that. When you ask for something that resonates and feels authentically important, people come to the table.”

The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine performs Sunday, February 11 at 1 p.m. McCarter Theatre is at 91 University Place. The program, conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko, features pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky as soloist in Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2, Dvorak Symphony No. 8, and Berezovsky’s First Ukrainian Symphony in C major. Visit mccarter.org for tickets.