These days it’s Lidiya Yankovskaya’s name that we hear heralded as she climbs to new heights as a conductor, but not long ago, she had some heralding of her own to do. “Musical Peoples of Facebook!” she announced on her Facebook wall in December 2015. “I’m thinking about organizing a Refugee Orchestra (& chorus?), as a means of showing how many refugees or close relatives of refugees from all over the world are now actively contributing to our culture and society.”
The Russian-American conductor, then 29, had spent that summer traveling in Europe. There she had witnessed the Syrian refugee crisis firsthand. She was struck by the open arms with which Germans met that summer’s wave of refugees. “Despite the fact that it literally was thousands of people just walking across the border—thousands… despite that, the Germans really welcomed the individuals coming in,” Yankovskaya recalls during a recent interview. “Towns opened their homes and built shelters and found ways to help people get jobs.”
After the explosive actions around immigration in the U.S. this year—the travel bans, the protests, the appellate court rulings live-streamed by Americans young and old who only recently tuned into immigration policy—2015 sounds like a simpler time. But for refugees, it materially was not. When she returned home to the U.S. that summer, Yankovskaya noticed that “mayors of cities and all kinds of leaders nationwide were speaking out and saying, ‘We don’t want those refugees.’” Never mind that America already had restrictive immigration policies, she says, with regulations that grew only tighter during the Obama Administration. Never mind, too, that America is an ocean away from the Middle East; logistically, the U.S. could not experience the sort of refugee influx Europe was facing. “To me, it was clear that largely this was an issue that had to do with racism, that had to do with discrimination against Muslims.
“I thought, What can I do to give back?”
The Refugee Orchestra Project, an ambitious, highly visible response to Yankovskaya’s question, debuted in May 2016, mere months after her Facebook call to action. The ensemble is in residence at National Sawdust during the 2017-18 season, and will perform there on Nov. 12.
Yankovskaya might have been more attuned to refugee issues than most of her fellow Americans in 2015, because, two decades earlier, she was one. At nine years old, the conductor fled St. Petersburg, Russia, with her mother and sister to escape raging anti-Semitism. “I remember very vividly as a child seeing Nazi demonstrations on the streets regularly with swastika flags flying, handing out pamphlets that said ‘Kill all the Jews.’ There was a fellow student at my music school whose father was shot randomly on the street in a hate crime because they were darker-skinned Georgians. Just randomly, for no good reason.” She was a precocious music student who sang in the intensive St. Petersburg Radio and Television Children’s Chorus and studied piano at a specialized music school. Yet for the sole fact of her Jewishness, she had already been barred from certain opportunities—her mother was told so directly.
The family had a fast track out: the conductor’s aunt had immigrated to the U.S. in the ‘70s, allowing her to petition for relatives to follow. On arrival in upstate New York, the nine-year-old Lidiya knew five sentences in English, including one that rings especially wretched: “I don’t understand.” Making the transition harder, fourth grade saw Yankovskaya enrolled in a Hebrew day school. This meant that she had to learn not only how to be an American but how to be a Jew. Although anti-Semitism had forced the family out of Russia, she knew nothing of Jewish culture nor practice; it had been their ethnic designation only.
Despite the new surroundings, Yankovskaya’s mother, who is an engineer by day and a music-lover by evening, made sure that her daughter’s music studies went uninterrupted. As a teen Yankovskaya became one of two students admitted to the private teaching studio of piano duo Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther. She also enrolled at Guilderland High School, a public school outside of Albany, NY, that has an amazingly robust music program.
“Studying music in this country is very prohibitive to many, many people,” Yankovskaya says. “We didn’t have any money when I moved here. My mom was a single mom and moving to a new country and not really speaking the language and figuring out how to adjust to this country. She did a lot of research and she made sure that this [the Albany area] is where we ended up.” Yankovskaya recalls Guilderland having four orchestras, five bands, choirs galore, and a rigorous music theory program.
The Guilderland public school system is where she met Jeff Herchenroder. A bassist and music educator for 30 years, Herchenroder remembers Yankovskaya vividly. Whether in his orchestra, chamber string ensemble, music theory class, or homeroom, he taught her in one setting or another every single day of her high school career. “It was a lot,” he says with a laugh.
Orchestra? Chamber strings? Yes—piano lessons and choirs were not enough for Yankovskaya. She picked up the violin in school. By her senior year, she was concertmaster. That year she also won her school’s concerto competition, which earned her the chance to solo with the orchestra. In rehearsals for her performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 (K. 414), Herchenroder suggested that she try conducting from the bench. She was, it turned out, a natural. He then offered her the podium in concert, allowing her to conduct the third movement of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. “Which was crazy,” Yankovskaya says. Still, she tried it. “He just saw something in me and decided to offer me this opportunity. It’s thanks to this opportunity that I do what I do now.”
“She took it real seriously,” Herchenroder remembers.
In 2014, ten years after her Dvořák conducting debut, Yankovskaya’s once-upon-a-time teacher sat in the bass section at the Hubbard Hall Opera Theater in Cambridge, NY, playing under her baton. She had returned upstate to conduct Gianni Schicchi and Le Nozze di Figaro. “She is a hell of a conductor,” Herchenroder says. “Just very self-assured, really no wasted time. It’s just all about the business.”
Kaila Frymire, a Boston-based singer, agrees. “She has found this amazing style of conducting that takes command of the room. She is absolutely in control. Everything that she wants from the music, she’s clear in explaining and pulling out of the group. You can see the respect from everyone. And she’s found a way to do that in what is still, unfortunately, thought of as a man’s role. … It’s so effective. It’s incredible.”
This reputation is in large part what kindled the Refugee Orchestra Project. Her “Musical Peoples of Facebook!” post prompted 199 “likes” and dozens of comments; such was her colleagues’ enthusiasm to work with her. On May 10, 2016, in Cambridge, MA, Yankovskaya and the Refugee Orchestra Project performed a program that ranged from Donizetti (the duet from Don Pasquale) to Brahms (the second movement of the Violin Concerto) to an aria from a new opera, The Magic Mirror, by 30-year-old composer Polina Nazaykinskaya. The soprano Yelena Dudochkin, a refugee from Ukraine, was the soloist in the last piece programmed: “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin. Almost every musician onstage was a refugee or the child of one.
The performance was intended as a one-time event to spotlight local refugees, but excitement for the project proved bigger. A second program in Boston soon followed. Later, there were concerts in New York City and Washington, D.C. With the 2017-18 season came the National Sawdust residency. Frymire, who now serves as the orchestra’s executive director, says future seasons and farther travel are in the works.
Refugee fervor? one wonders about its success, thinking of the resistance that has built against the current President’s “wall”-building rhetoric. Maybe. But Yankovskaya nuances this view. Since the election of Donald Trump, she notes, the refugee’s plight has morphed from a social issue into a political one. As a result, some would-be supporters of her orchestra have been scared away.
Not that its support overall is waning. When the Refugee Orchestra Project’s next schedule shakes out, Frymire imagines Chicago will be one of its stops. This summer, Yankovskaya was named music director of the Chicago Opera Theater. She will relocate to that city next year. According to a survey by the Dallas Opera, this appointment makes her the only female music director of an American opera company whose annual budget is greater than $1 million. While a sad statistic for American opera, it’s a thrilling one for the young conductor. Hers is a job that comes with deep pockets, meaning she’ll get to be adventurous with repertoire and attract big talent.
It is also, Yankovskaya recognizes, a job she might never have gotten without the few women conductors who came before her. “The bigger the organizations and the more established, the more risk-averse they are,” she says. “So, established organizations are more likely to take someone familiar who looks like something they’ve seen before, who reminds them of something they know.” Thanks to Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, the female American conductors who preceded her, Yankovskaya looks slightly more familiar to a place like the COT. Slightly less—well, alien.
With misogyny and xenophobia seeping from the White House to Charlottesville and Hollywood to cyberspace, now is not a great time to be either a woman or a refugee in America. Yet from her podiums, Yankovskaya makes both seem doable. “I’m not a policymaker,” she says. “I don’t feel that I should pretend to dictate policy, politically speaking or otherwise. But one thing I can do is present music.”
Organize, prepare, present. She sounds sober about the state of her now-home. But then, though young, Yankovskaya has seen unrest before.
Lidiya Yankovskaya and the Refugee Orchestra Project present Our Art, Our Stories: The Voice of Refugee Artists at National Sawdust on Nov. 12 at 4pm; nationalsawdust.org
Samantha London, who holds two degrees in piano performance, is a New York-based arts journalist. She received the Audience Award at the inaugural Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in 2012. Her work has been published by Atlas Obscura, CSO Sounds & Stories, and Oxford University Press.