Notes from Ukraine: a look behind the concert of the century

The concert “Notes from Ukraine” took place in Carnegie Hall on December 4th, 2022. Two hours of performance took more than two years of planning and involve 50 people to organize.

Once the performance was over, we took a pause and decided to reveal what was happening behind the scenes.

How it started

It’s hard to track whose initial idea was to organize the concert to commemorate a 100 anniversary of Shchedryk’s premiere at Carnegie Hall. As the centennial approached, many people around the world wanted to celebrate this song and all it has come to symbolize. We are honored to have been able to realize some of this celebration and would like to share what our group of volunteers has been able to achieve.

One strong impetus was in 2019 in Kyiv when Marta Kolomiets, a Fulbright program director in Ukraine, organized the gala concert celebrating 100 years of Ukrainian Cultural Diplomacy: from “Shchedryk” to “Carol of the Bells”.

Working on the topic, **Marta collaborated with Tina Peresunko who had recently published a book about the impact of the Ukrainian National Capella “Cultural diplomacy of Symon Petlyura: “Shchedryk” against “ruski mir”. The mission of Oleksand Koshyts Capella (1919-1924)”.

In April 2020, the wheels kicked into high gear on a video call when Dora Chomiak introduced Marta Kokliets to Leah Batstone. Marta and Leah immediately hit it off and had weekly calls discussing the organizational details of the project, like funding, partnerships, application process and started discussing the program itself.

Unfortunately, Marta passed away in August 2020, leaving the team with the mission to finish the production and programming of the event on their own. Leah and the members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus and the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York worked together to submit an application to Carnegie Hall.

The Self Reliance (NY) Federal Credit Union stepped up to support the project by pledging the amount of funds required by Carnegie Hall to secure a date for the venue. After that the real preparations started. In 2021 the Ukrainian Institute joined the team. Mykhailo Chedryk, the director of the Music direction at the Ukrainian Institute, together with Tetyana Filevska, its Creative Director, contributed to the development of the musical program and the production the concert.

This is how Razom for Ukraine, the Ukrainian Institute and the UCMF came together to organize the concert of the century.

How it was going

Everything was going according to the plan before the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Most of the Ukrainian Institute’s team was in Ukraine coping with the challenges of the invasion, Razom had to prioritize the delivery of humanitarian aid and UCMF was trying to organize the events of the 2022 festival in March, even though some Ukrainian performers weren’t able to come to the US.

The invasion delayed the organization of such a huge project as “Notes from Ukraine” by a couple of months. In March the team regrouped again to discuss how appropriate the concert would be during the war. But just like the Ukrainian Capella in 1922, the mission of “Notes from Ukraine” gained a new meaning after the invasion: to assert the existence of Ukrainian culture and advocate support for Ukraine. Following this decision, they registered the domains for the project and went online!

The challenges

Like any large event, “Notes from Ukraine” faced many challenges, perhaps the biggest of which was bringing a Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchedryk” to the US during wartime.

Since the American embassy in Kyiv is closed, 58 children from the choir had to be taken to Warsaw, Poland, to get American visas: 57 applications for visas were filled in by Leah Batstone and reviewed by each applicant. Then the children had to be brought from Europe to the US and provided with transportation, nutrition, and accommodation.

We want to express deep gratitude to everyone who helped us organize a comfortable stay for the Shchedryk Choir in New York, including namely,

  • Veselka
  • Mangia NYC
  • Two Boots Pizza
  • PJT Partners
  • PS 84 Lillian Weber School of the Arts
  • Ukrainian Village Restaurant Cornerstone Church NYC Jose Andres and Mercado Little Spain Mr. John Dunn
  • Baczynsky East Village Meat Market
  • Streecha
  • Panera
  • 2 Bros Pizza
  • Bistro Nando
  • Cultural Services of the French Embassy

who provided meals for the children. Special thanks to Tamara Syby and Lydia Holovko for taking care of children’s nutrition and for Leah Batstone and Val Szep for being always on.

You can’t come to New York and not soak it up by walking around New York. The organizers wanted to show the children around the city, and this mission was accomplished with great success thanks to dozens of volunteers, some who are lifelong New Yorkers, some who just arrived from Ukraine.

Huge thanks to the volunteers who took the choir on their tour around New York, including

  • Sasha Virchuk
  • Olena Burdeina
  • Olga Akhmetova
  • Natalia Koshel
  • Ira Fediv
  • Bohdan Yaremko
  • Lidiia Hurmak
  • Lesya Dydych
  • Taras Kushnir
  • Anastasiia Liakhina
  • Alexandr Drozdovskyi
  • Mariya Khorun
  • Yoanna (Asya) Ivaniv
  • Nataliia Bezpalko
  • Oleksa Martynyuk
  • Kamila Orlova
  • Zoe Ripecky
  • Emily Hamilton

On their way around the city the choir planned to organize a flashmob and sing the “Carol of the Bells” on Times Square. But New York weather of pouring rain necessitated a change to plans. The choir sang inside Grand Central Terminal as a full crew from NBC news followed them around town. The video of them signing was published on social media and became viral, leading to multiple interviews with local media outlets.

All this touring around the city happened in addition to a tight rehearsal schedule of the Choir.

Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchedryk” rehearsing at Saint John’s Church In the Village

Among other significant challenges was the funding of the concert. The organizers, including Razom for Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute, had other spending priorities due to the full-scale invasion and faced unexpected expenses for the event as well. Not willing to compromise on the quality of the program or cancel the show altogether, the team put an extra efforts into fundraising and is grateful to everyone who supported the project financially or otherwise.

The people

Three organizations came together to co-present the concert: Razom for Ukraine, The Ukrainian Institute – Kyiv and the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival. Individuals from each group came together as a core team. They met weekly on Wednesdays and stayed in contact through countless emails and chats across time zones, blackouts, and air raids. The core team included:

Tetyana Filveska, Executive Director
Volodymyr Sheiko, Executive Director
Leah Batstone, Creative Director
Dora Chomiak, Development Director
Valerie Szepiwdycz, Executive Producer
Mykhailo Chedryk, Project Manager

Jacob Slattery, Public Relations Director
Ginevra Petrucci, Production Manager
Kseniia Kalyna, Communications Manager
Olga Samofalova, Celebrity Manager
Katya Pavlevych, Social Media Manager
Tina Peresunko, Historical Advisor

Special thanks to Projector Creative and Tech Online Institute (Kyiv) for facilitating collaboration with our Brand Designer Julia Donchuk and Motion Designer Tetiana Yefremova.

The extensive program of the concert was created with the help of a programming advisory board consisting of Vasyl Hrechynsky, Ivan Ostapovych, Marika Kuzma, Liubov Morozova, and Maria Sonevytsky.

The first in-person meeting of most of the music committee team after Covid-19 lockdowns. June, 2021.

Producing a concert with four choirs, two soloists, and two hosts at Carnegie Hall is a complex and expensive task. We are deeply grateful for the friends of the project who contributed to the success of the production.

Leonard Bernstein Family Anonymous

In honor of Katherine & Joseph Buchynsky George, Ellen and Alex Casey

Drs. Thomas and Dennie P. Wolf Anatolii and Svitlana Dolesko

Ernst & Young LLP
Kobzarska Sich Bandura Camp
Saint John’s in the Village
Ukrainian Selfreliance FCU (Philadelphia)
Ladd and Sigrid Thorne
City Winery New York

Steinway & Sons — a sponsor of the concert 100 years ago

Self-Reliance (NY) Federal Credit Union — the first sponsor to believe in us and support our project 💛

Defense of freedom is mandated on all fronts. We are honored to partner with the public sector and the private sector to make this project a reality. We would like to say a special thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Embassy of Ukraine in the United States of America, the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations, the Consulate General of Ukraine in New York, and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine for their generous support and facilitation in organizing the event.

Serhiy Kyslytsya and Dora Chomiak

Many people helped to make this event a success by contributing their expertise. We would like to express our gratitude to many people who made the event what it was, (but who we haven’t mentioned here yet) including

Katelyn Simone

Mary Micevych-Jerome

Anatoli Murha

Tetyana Dzhula

Markiyan Matsekh

Claus and Natalia Hertel

Katia and Lianne Chapin

Tamara Tershakovec

Yaroslava Sochka

Nataliia Mousienko

Bohdan Yaremko

The concert

The performance started at 2 pm with dozens of people lining outside Carnegie Hall. Those, who missed the chance to buy tickets before the hall sold out, were hoping to catch some returns or to buy them off hands of people who had to cancel at the last minute. (We were still contending with a global pandemic after all.) Those who couldn’t make it were selling them right there. The air was filled with anticipation, the hall was filled with Ukrainian vyshyvankas.

The honorable host, Vera Farmiga, welcomed the audience with traditional Ukrainian Christmas greetings and acknowledged the distinguished guests of the concert:

  • Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Serhiy Kyslytsya
  • President of the United Nations General Assembly Csaba Kőrösi
  • Consul General of Ukraine in New York Oleksii Holubov
  • Ukrainian soldiers – Anton Domaratskyi and Viktor Nesterenko – who were in the US on rehabilitation. The audience stood up greeting them and remained standing to show appreciation to the heroes in the hall.
Anton Domaratskyi and Viktor Nesterenko (in the uniform) — Ukrainian soldiers who arrived to the US for the rehabilitation.

After the greetings, Vera Farmiga introduced the First Lady of Ukraine — Olena Zelenska — who recorded a special video message for the audience.

A special message from Olena Zelenska.

The concert started with traditional Ukrainian chorus music works.

Firstly, the Ukrainian folk song Oh, how it was long ago and Christmas irmos The Magi of Persia performed by Marichka Marczyk, Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus and Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York. Music arranged by Uliana Horbachevska. Marichka walked down the aisle of the hall singing her way to the stage, softly introducing her voice into the audience. Vasyl Hrechynsky, conducted the chorus coming together into musical harmony with the soloist.

The concert continued with Yakiv Yatsynevych composition Jerusalem Bells and Mykola Lysenko’s I am Caroling and Oh Carol!

Representing more modern works of Ukrainian choir music, the concert featured pieces by Hanna Havrylets — an incredibly talented composer who died from the aneurysm in Kyiv unable to get help on the third day of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The first part also featured by classics like Kyrylo Stetsenko and Denys Sichynsky whose pieces were performed by diaspora choruses — Ukrainian Bandurists Chorus of Norther America and conducted by Oleh Mahlay and Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York conducted by Myhailo Hrechynsky.

Full program of the concert “Notes from Ukraine”

Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of Northern American together with Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchderyk” added Christmas mood to the stage by performing Somewhere in my Memory by John Williams — a familiar theme in the popular movie, Home Alone.

Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchderyk” conducted by Marianna Sablina continued on performing works by contemporary composers – Hanna Havrylets, Valentyn Sylvestrov and Victoria Poleva.

Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchedryk” conducted by Marianna Sablina

The peak of the first part was the performance of the most anticipated piece — Mykola Leontovych’s Shchedryk / Carol of the Bells sang by three choirs and conducted by Oleh Mahlay. The audience exploded with applause, stood up and remained standing for minutes.

Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America and Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchedryk”
conducted by Oleh Mahlay

While the visitors treated themselves to a drink during the intermission, the Shchedryk Choir got a chance to take a backstage photo with the hosts — Martin Scorsese and Vera Farmiga.

Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchedryk” with Vera Farmiga and Martin Scorsese

The second part of the concert started when the lights in the hall suddenly shut off completely. The hall was submerged into darkness. Cellphone screens of audience members went black. The hall fell silent. After a few uncomfortable seconds, a male voice cut through the darkness, saying “When the lights shut off, you understand that as something is out of the ordinary. But you spend four, ten, twenty hours or even days without it and you start getting used to the darkness. That is the worst thing ever.”

It was the voice of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy who recorded a special message for the audience of the concert to increase awareness about the mass shelling of Ukraine by Russia and the destruction of critical civilian infrastructure.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy

President Zelenskyy thanked all the friends of Ukraine for their support, including Martin Scorsese who appeared on stage shortly after.

Martin Scorsese delivered a powerful speech about the resilience of Ukraine and its culture. He mentioned Mykola Leontovych who was deceitfully murdered by a Soviet state security agent under cover but whose music survived and thrives till today. Scorsese shared his personal respect for the Ukrainian film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko as a genius whose art was challenging the authoritarian regime.

The second half of the program highlighted the connections between American and Ukrainian composers with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street at the center of the program. Janai Brugger performed her famous rendition of “Summertime*”* from Porgy and Bess opera which she debuted at the MET a couple of seasons ago. It may be based on the traditional Ukrainian lullaby “Oh the Dreams Walks near the Windows” beautifully sung by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and conducted by Daniela Candillari.

Then came the time for Maxim Shalygin’s Blessing. Maxim is a young Ukrainian-Dutch composer who had his piece performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of thirty-seven.

Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque was performed next that also has a Ukrainian connection. Eric studied under Virko Baley, a Ukrainian -American composer at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Interestingly, Carnegie has just hosted Holiday Music by Eric Whitacre a week before the concert and “Carol of the Bells” was performed then too. Then the choir performed “Warm-Up” from Mass by Leonard Bernstein — one of the most successful and beloved American composers and conductors whose whole family immigrated to the US from Ukraine.

Then the Choir of Trinity Wall Street performed excerpts from Svyatoslav Lunyov’s The Noel Consort. These are modern interpretations of traditional Christmas carols. “Silent Night” has never sounded so good — and that’s a Ukrainian conductor interpreting traditional English carols! Daniela Candillari.

Conductor Daniela Candillari

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street was then joined on stage by the Children’s Shchedryk Choir. Together with Janai Brugger they sang world premiere of Trevor Weston’s composition Slowly with the lyrics of Serhiy Zhadan written for this performance.

Що тут стояти й дивитися на вогні.

Що тут інше можуть сказати мені.

Я би вже і пішов, мені вже все одно.

Просто оце випалене вікно – це моє вікно.

What use in standing here staring at the fire?

What else can they possibly say?

I would leave this place, I no longer care.

Only that burned out window – it belongs to me.

Ukrainian Children’s Choir “Shchedryk”, Janai Brugger the Choir of Trinity Wall Street conducted by Daniela Candillari

When all the choirs went on stage for a final bow, the audience stood up and applauded for minutes. Suddenly, people started chanting “Shchedryk, Shchedryk” leaving the performers no choice but to sing Shchedryk as an encore. The hall remained standing for the whole duration of the song.

People were shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” and the whole hall responded “Glory to heroes!” After the performers left the stage, people in the audience started singing the anthem of Ukraine.

This emotional moment was followed by a special reception to honor the distinguished diplomatic guests and supporters of the concert. The President of Razom for Ukraine, Dora Chomiak, the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN Sergei Kyslytsya, and the President of the Ukrainian Institute Volodymyr Sheiko delivered speeches of appreciation to Carnegie Hall represented by Susan Brady, and to the team of organizers and volunteers.

(left to right) Volodymyr Sheiko, Susan Brady, Serhiy Kyslytsya and Dora Chomiak

The impact

The video of Ukrainian children signing the beloved Christmas carol in the legendary New York location attracted the attention of both local and national press. However, the interest of media went way beyond the story of the choir into the story of Ukrainian resilience, culture, and spirit.

The concert received great coverage, both in the US and in Ukraine.

The New York Times wrote a feature about the choir and another article about the historical context and cultural impact of Shchedryk.

Article by Javier C. Hernández for New York Times
The article by Rob LeDonne for New York Times

NBC spent a day with the Shchedryk Choir in New York and dedicated an evening segment to covering them.

All the hard work eventually paid off: two days before the concert we officially sold out.

This meant that we filled 2337 seats in the most prestigious concert hall in the US with almost zero marketing budget.

Immediately after that, the Instagram inbox started filling in with questions how to join the concert and where one can watch it.

Thankfully, we had a solution for the overwhelming interest in the event.

The performance took place in Carnegie Hall, New York, but its impact went beyond the walls of the hall. Thanks to our streaming partner Vimeo and with support from the US Embassy Kyiv, we were able to broadcast the concert all over the world. Carol of the Bells along with traditional Ukrainian carols and modern choir pieces were heard in countries around the globe. We received Instagram posts of people watching the concert in bomb shelters and living rooms.

The stream gathered 5,100 live viewers during the event.

As of December 9th, the video had 71,792 views and 130,479 impressions. You can watch it below.

We were able to involve American celebrities to enhance the message and join the army of advocates for Ukraine in the US. American actress of Ukrainian heritage Vera Farmiga cited a Ukrainian Christmas greeting during the concert both in Ukrainian and English. Iconic director Martin Scorcese spoke from the stage about the impact of Ukrainian culture and its lasting legacy, mentioning the music of Mykola Leontovych and movies of Oleksandr Dovzhenko.

We engaged representatives of Ukrainian and American intelligentsia to join the concert.

Jamie Bernstein on behalf of the whole Bernstein family supported the event and its role in spreading Ukrainian culture. The Bernstein family has roots in Ukraine.

A video greeting from Jamie Bernstein

Serhiy Zhadan was commissioned to write a poem for the concert that was set to music by the American composer, Trevor Weston and performed by Trinity Wall Street Church Choir, the Shchedryk Children’s Choir and Janai Brugger.

Serhiy Zhadan reciting the poem he wrote for the concert Slowly

We wanted to create a memorable event that will have large and lasting impact; one that will encourage people to explore Ukraine and support its fight for freedom. In just the first weeks of the concert, we are thrilled to see references to it by Professor Timothy Snyder in his closing lecture (available on YouTube), by thousands of mentions on social media and mass media. (Please continue to share your links with the NotesFromUkraine account on Instagram.)

Thank you

We would like to take an opportunity and once again thank everyone who helped organize the concert of the century during a difficult time for Ukraine, precisely when events like this one are needed most.

Thank you to everyone who donated to our fundraiser. We continue accepting donations. All the proceeds will go to the United24 initiative by President Volodymyr Zelensky to buy power generators for hospitals in Ukraine.

To read more about this concert in US and Ukraine media please follow the link: