After reading gruesome news headlines of the Russia-Ukraine war overseas, inspiration to foster hope and find a way to help them out struck for University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance masters student Valentin Kovalev. Kovalev, a Russian saxophonist, immediately called his Ukrainian friend, and pianist, Alexander Polyakov. In a sign of solidarity, the two came together to perform one of composer Modest Mussorgsky’s most famous works, “The Great Gate of Kyiv.” 

“I think I really changed my mind about how I feel about this music after the 24th of February,” Kovalev said, “I see this music completely in a different way as it is a sign of hope for me and lots of other people.” The saxophone/piano arrangement played by Kovalev and Plyakov was created by Japanese composer Jun Nagao.

The duo’s performance was part of a larger Ukraine Benefit Concert hosted April 10 by First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, and organized by Kovalev, featuring students and faculty members of the University of Michigan School of Music Theater and Dance. The benefit concert raised $17,000 to support Razom, who purchased life-saving medical backpacks that were shipped to Ukraine, and to Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, who is working to help resettle Ukrainian refugees settling in Michigan.

“I think one of our biggest goals is to accept the refugees,” Kovalev said, “to make them feel very comfortable and to have them welcomed.”

Sasha Gusikhin Russian American vocalist and University of Michigan music student Sasha Gusikhin, also performed at the Ukraine benefit concert. She’s supporting Ukraine through the concert because she has extended family in Ukraine and Russia. “I think as a musician it’s our responsibility to use our music to unite others,” she said. “I believe our music can bind us together in the darkest of times.”

After the concert, One Detroit Arts & Culture Producer Sarah Smith caught up with Kovalev and Gusikhin to hear how the benefit concert helped support Ukrainians and about their goal to unite people through music.

Watch Ukraine Benefit Concert:

Full Transcript:

Sasha Gusikhin, University of Michigan Student: I believe that music can bind us together in the darkest of times. And it’s our responsibility to use this force as an agent to uplift humanity and help with these kinds of problems.

Valentin Kovalev, Saxophonist: And for me, it’s very important to show a sign of solidarity with Ukraine, that we are, as Russian citizens, we are against of this war. I am a saxophonist and I’m studying here for my master’s degree at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance. And I am a Russian citizen with deep Ukrainian roots. So, from my father’s side, his grandparents were from Ukraine. And also, funny enough, my sister just got married to a Ukrainian just a few weeks ago. So, we are very worried about them, about his side of the family who is remaining in Ukraine and not willing to flee the country.

Sasha Gusikhin: I am a Russian American. My parents have immigrated here from St. Petersburg in the 1990s. I also have family in Ukraine.

Valentin Kovalev: And the whole idea of me doing something about this came to me when at first, I read the news online. I was so terrified and so frustrated about the situation. So, I have decided to offer free lessons to Ukrainian saxophonists online and I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. So, I was thinking a lot of time, how can I help us musicians to bring some hope to our lives? And so, this whole idea of organizing the concert came to my mind.

Sasha Gusikhin: It is a way to unite the audience and performers to uplift people in these times. As well as bring people together in order to raise funds for helping out on the ground in Ukraine.

Valentin Kovalev: There is a huge fact of propaganda, unfortunately, in all of the countries and especially in Russia. And by bringing this concert to life, I want everyone to know that Russians are against of this invasion, and we don’t support our government.

Sasha Gusikhin: I think one of the most important things we can do as musicians, again, is to organize concerts like these and use these gifts in order to raise funds and keep the conversation going about international conflicts and how to help people who are oppressed by these regimes. All proceeds will be going towards the Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, which is currently aiding refugees arriving in Michigan from Ukraine. As well as the Ukrainian American Crisis Response Committee and working on the ground in Ukraine.

Valentin Kovalev:  I hope to bring more awareness to Ukrainian composers and include them in daily basis.

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