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Lidiya Yankovskaya Lidiya Yankovskaya. Photo by Kate Lemmon

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From Russia with Love

Russian-American Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya brings Refugee Orchestra Project to London, making its UK debut on September 1 at LSO St Luke's, Jerwood Hall. Buy Tickets

Published on August 27, 2019

Hi Lidiya, thank you so much for your time. Our traditional question is "Where in the States are you from", but I understand you were born in Russia - how did America enter your life?

My family moved to Albany, New York, when I was nine years old, and I spent the rest of my childhood in the Albany area.

What was life like for you in the States growing up?

Moving to a new country is always an enormous challenge. However, kids assimilate so quickly! I was just the right age to pick up the language and culture very rapidly, while also still remaining totally connected to Russian culture and language. Being able to fluidly navigate through two nationalities made the transition much easier for me than it is for many, and has continued to serve me well in my career and life. Of course, there are also challenges to this dual identity, but music has always been a constant for me.

How did music become a part of that life in the US?

I started studying music (piano and singing) in Russia, when I was very young. Once we moved to the United States, I also took up the violin. I was fortunate to have really amazing music teachers throughout my childhood, who encouraged and supported everything I did. I was also lucky to be part of a school system with a superb music program – my high school had 8 choruses, 3 orchestras and 5 bands! Everyone received free instrumental lessons in school, and I also took lessons privately. There were high-level music theory courses, and each chorus rehearsal in my school started with the teacher calling on one kid from each voice part to sight-sing a Bach chorale.

One of your upcoming performances is with Refugee Orchestra Project, which will be performing in London on September 1st. Can you tell us about the Orchestra, how you became involved, and what it means to you?

I founded this organization three years ago as a way to create a sense of unity in a time of increasing divisiveness within the United States. I realized that many of my own friends and colleagues had no idea that I – like so many – had come to the US as a refugee. I joined with a number of colleagues to spread awareness about the contributions of refugee musicians and composers to our culture and society. Many Americans don’t realize that "God Bless America" was written by a refugee musician, Irving Berlin!

Often music feels like it has something to say about society, is that particularly true with Refugee Orchestra Project?

Music, like any art, reflects our society. With Refugee Orchestra Project, we hope to expand this perspective by focusing on the voices of those who were not born into American culture, but overcame many challenges in order to become American, ultimately adding a great deal to our culture and society.

American identity is often discussed in the context of immigration, what's your view on the role that America plays in bringing people from multiple cultures together?

America is the country of immigrants – that is a clichéd statement, but it's also fact. The native population of our country was mostly wiped out, and even the earliest arriving families of settlers landed on American shores only a few hundred years ago. Since most of the immigration waves are so recent, America is truly a cultural salad bowl, with all the individual ingredients still visible, but combining to make a whole greater than its individual parts.

What music will you be performing at the London concert, and does that music resonate with the mission of the Orchestra?

We are programming music by great historical composers who were refugees in their own time, alongside those writing today. We have music by Donizetti, who sought refuge while escaping political persecution, Rachmaninov, who fled the Russian Revolution, and Bartók, who fled WWII. We also have music by living composers like Milad Yousufi, who was persecuted by the Taliban and escaped to study in the US, as well as Iranian-American Gity Razaz, another young composer on the rise. We also included music by British composer Errollyn Wallen, who was born in Belize and also has some American familial connections.

Proceeds for the concert will go to Refugee Action - can you tell us a little about the charity?

Refugee Action is a wonderful charity that works on the ground to help refugee families resettle in the UK, guiding people through various administrative processes and procedures, and directing them to opportunities.

What are you most looking forward to about the London performance?

I always love meeting and working with new musicians, as well as reconnecting with those I've known for a long time. The UK performance will feature London-based players, so I am looking forward to making music with this new group, as well as reconnecting with artists like Errollyn, who is a longtime friend and colleague.

What do you hope attendees of the concert take away from the experience?

The richness, variety and depth of music that has come out of immigrant and refugee communities is immense. I hope our audiences see that refugees have come from many places throughout our history, and any of us could find ourselves in the position of desperately needing help.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Lidiya Yankovskaya?

The opportunity to regularly make music with people from all around the world and from all walks of life.

Refugee Orchestra Project makes its UK debut on September 1, 2019 at LSO St Luke's, Jerwood Hall, London. Buy Tickets, and to find out more details on Refugee Orchestra Project, go to www.refugeeorchestraproject.org.

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