124.Voices for Ukraine

May 1, 2022

Each month Bruce Bentzman offers Snakeskin an essay about events in his life. There is no May issue of Snakeskin, but he has sent us this account of a memorable concert in Cardiff – so here it is.

There is nothing I need to repeat here about the unfolding history of Russia invading Ukraine. It is covered everywhere in the news. President Vladimir Putin has brought 20th century war and genocide into 21st century Europe, where we should know better, when we should have read our histories.

I noticed the blue posters appearing in The Hayes. “Voices for Ukraine” the posters announced. “An afternoon with stars of the opera world.” There was a long list of talent, and a notice: “All proceeds to the DEC Ukraine Appeal”.

I was telling my friend Ken about the upcoming concert and that I was buying a ticket. He immediately said I was to buy a ticket for him as well. When the rest of my Friday night buddies found out, I was also buying tickets for Steve and Brian. Brian instructed me to buy a ticket for Joyce, saying, if she couldn’t come, we’d find somebody else. I bought a ticket for Joyce and when we told her, she said she would come, as did Andra, and Sara. Now we were seven.

I designed and had manufactured lapel pins that superimposed Draig Coch from the flag of Wales onto the blue and yellow bands for the flag of Ukraine. I was handing them out with the tickets at Tuesday’s Coffee Club when a second Ken – you can’t know too many Kens – said he would like to join. Giving this second Ken my ticket, I pulled out the mobile phone and bought an eighth ticket for myself. And on 10th April 2022 at five o’clock, everyone showed at Saint David’s Hall.

What followed was a celebration of talent, in defiance of the tragedy to which Putin would condemn the world. We were not ignoring what Matthew Arnold called “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery”, but refusing to drink Putin’s poison.

The evening was organized by baritone Mark Llewelyn Evans and cellist Rose-marie de Lloyd. Mr Evans served as master of ceremonies and he had the effervescence of a masterly host, all the charm and wit. While Mr Evans was overflowing with enthusiasm and humour, Ms de Lloyd remained anonymous in the cello section of the orchestra.

There was no printed program available, for which Mr Evans apologized. Now it is my turn to apologize for having failed to take notes at the time. I was caught up in the moment and must work from memory and research. Also, please forgive me for the many artists I have overlooked in the following account. I am limited to personal favorites and others would have different favorites.

At each end of the stage were large pedestal flower arrangements donated by Covent Garden Flowers of Cardiff. They contained sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine. A podium stood alongside the flowers at stage right. Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, came out to the podium and addressed us. “We look forward to welcoming the Ukrainian people whose lives have been so radically disrupted and who are looking to us to find that moment where they can live and gather their strength.”

After the interval, Mr Andriy Marchenko, Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission from the Embassy of Ukraine in London, came onto the stage and took his turn at the podium. The auditorium greeted him with an ovation. The Ken sitting on my right (I sat between two Kens) leaned towards me and said, “We should be standing.” Ken is a dyed-in-the-wool royalist and versed in protocol. “Okay, then…,” I replied and together we stood and continued clapping. A moment later it was the entire audience on their feet.

On with the show.

It all began with the Orchestra De Cymru striking up the music and every singer on stage singing “Libiamo” from La Traviata. It set the happy tone.

It was wonderful that we could still laugh. Dashing vigorously onto the stage came Aled Hall launching into a manic rendition of the “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. “Figaro! Figaro! FI-GA-RO!” He sang wonderfully while flirting with members of the audience. After this, I forget the order of things, but here is just some of what I remember.

Who doesn’t cry when the music is beautiful, as when Victoria Joyce and Jo Thomas sang, “Duo des fleurs” from Delibes’ Lakmé? Or when Rebecca Evans sang Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”.

Then to laugh again when Rebecca Evans and Mirouslava Yordanova performed Rossini’s “Duetto buffo di due gatti”, the Cat Duet. The only words sung are “meow”, or as Rossini spelt it, “miau”, and renditions tend to vary greatly.

The language of music exceeds any expression I can reproduce in writing. I can tell you there was a tender moment when Welsh harpist Catrin Finch performed. Known as The Queen of Harps, she was formerly the Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales. And how do I describe the way one melts when listening to Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach, the 2019 Winner of Cardiff Singer of the World. You really needed to be there.

In the second half, onto the stage flowed the Prolisok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in traditional folk costume, a costume my mother owned. Of all the international folk dances my mother performed, the Ukrainian dances were her favorite. The dances became more vigorous. They trotted and leaped across the narrow scope of the stage while engraved with smiles. It was hard to sit still.

When the evening reached its conclusion, all the performers came out for bows and we all stood for Ukraine’s national anthem. Several of my friends were piqued that they didn’t also play the Welsh national anthem, yet we remained on our feet clapping for what felt like ten minutes, but in truth I did not bother to measure the length of time. Slava Ukraini!

This magnificent concert was entirely voluntary. Not one of the performers invited had declined. No one took payment to perform. More than £14,000 was raised for the DEC Ukraine Appeal. I felt that the event was an important marker of the time in which we find ourselves living. And I have the poster!

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