Refugee Orchestra Project Spreads A Musical Message of Inclusion

Boston Globe

Boston, MA

Zoë Madonna

It’s been just over a year since the Refugee Orchestra Project performed its debut concert in Cambridge, and founder and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya has learned a few things along the way.

“When I started this project, I didn’t realize how many misconceptions there were about refugees,” said Yankovskaya, 31, who has since helmed Refugee Orchestra Project concerts in Washington, D.C., and New York City. “Even with people who want to help refugees, it’s kind of this pity towards the other, often, rather than the understanding that these are human beings and this can happen to anyone.”

The Refugee Orchestra Project will perform on Monday, May 22, at First Church Cambridge. For each performance, the musicians are drawn from the community of the city, creating a pickup orchestra and chorus of refugees and friends and family of refugees. Through music, the project proclaims the importance of welcoming all who are fleeing danger in their home countries.

The project has personal relevance for Yankovskaya, who came to the United States from Russia as a child with her mother. “My family is ethnically Jewish,” she explained, “and in Russia at the time, anti-Semitism was rampant.” She earned a master’s in conducting from Boston University. She is the artistic director of Boston-based Juventas New Music Ensemble, and has worked with ensembles including the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.

She founded the Refugee Orchestra Project in response to xenophobia she felt was spreading in the United States in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. In keeping with the project’s mission of inclusion, musicians are not auditioned. Ability levels range from amateur to professional, so she picks repertoire that is accessible. Some of the music centers around themes of refugees, displacement, and exile, such as the famous chorus “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Some was written by composers personally affected by violence and war, such as Béla Bartók or Iranian-born composer Gity Razaz. At the upcoming concert, soprano Amal El-Shrafi will sing Russian-Israeli composer Matti Kovler’s adaptation of a Debussy song about displaced children of World War I.

“For me, being the daughter of a family of Palestinian refugees, this project was important for me to be a part of,” El-Shrafi commented via e-mail. “One of the biggest goals we have in this organization is to show that refugees can be strong and giving members of society through their skills, talents, and goals.”

The project seeks to help refugees through donations and show refugees as vital members of healthy American communities. And it’s working to reach a wider audience. Yankovskaya estimates that a concert in Brooklyn had 80,000 views when it was live-streamed via NowThis, and more afterward.

“As people share what we do on social media, as it’s featured in different news outlets, I think that’s where the difference is made,” she said. “To realize that something like ‘God Bless America,’ which they see as an all-American anthem, was written by a refugee.”

“God Bless America” and other songs by Irving Berlin, who came to the United States when his family fled pogroms, have been fixtures on their programs. Monday’s concert will end with “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” Berlin’s setting of the poem by Emma Lazarus on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

What does it mean to a composer to be on such a program? Via e-mail, Razaz pointed to music’s power “to stretch across boundaries, to unite what may seem different or foreign, through our innate desire to communicate and connect.”

The project is entirely run and performed by volunteers. Before it attracted enough donations to cover concert expenses, Yankovskaya contributed her own money toward travel expenses for soloists, space rentals, and sheet music. The concerts are free with suggested donations, which are given to the International Rescue Committee and HIAS, an international Jewish nonprofit that helps refugees. Yankovskaya and her mother started their lives in the United States with HIAS’s aid.

“It’s my way of giving back,” she said. “To me, as a musician, there’s only so much I can do to help this and other issues today, and I don’t have millions of dollars that I can donate to some organization to make an impact. But I can do something like this.”

NewsBeth Stewart