When Music Niagara Festival founder and artistic director Atis Bankas announced a Toronto concert to support the Canada-Ukraine Foundation back in March, Irene McEvoy of St. Catharines was inspired.
The daughter of Ukrainian parents who emigrated to Canada after the Second World War couldn’t make it to the March 11 program in Toronto. So she contacted Bankas and offered to help him organize a local fundraiser to support the cause.
Two months later, her efforts are coming to fruition next Thursday, May 12 when Music Niagara presents Freedom and Peace for Ukraine, an evening of music at Club Roma in St. Catharines.
Both Bankas and Music Niagara general manager Karen Lade laud McEvoy for her tireless efforts in organizing the event.
“She’s secured the wine, the food, everything for free,” Lade tells The Local. “She has helped us out so much. Irene and Atis have been working together on this. She’s very, very passionate about it.”
“When I told her I would love to do a show in Niagara, she jumped on it,” Bankas adds. “She basically initiated it. It’s really incredible what she has been able to accomplish.”
McEvoy, a regular supporter of Music Niagara, set a goal that other than a few minor administration costs, all funds raised next week would go to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation. She says when she approached businesses for food and drink donations, with dogged determination, she said ‘no’ to every one of them who asked for their costs to be
“There will not be anything that we will have to pay for,” says McEvoy on the phone from her Port Dalhousie home. “Club Roma has donated their facility. Kacaba Vineyards is donating the wine. Savoia Hors D’Oeuvres is donating the appetizers, and Regal Florists is donating the flowers for decorations. And we should hear this week about a brewery we’ve asked to come on board.”
Originally, the show was scheduled to be a return to St. Mark’s Anglican Church, home of many memorable Music Niagara concerts prior to the pandemic. At the last minute, that fell through when the diocese nixed the serving of any food or drinks due to COVID restrictions. McEvoy was instrumental in booking the date at the Vansickle Road home of the St. Catharines Italian community.
With the minutiae covered by McEvoy, Bankas has been able to concentrate on booking the musicians for the evening, all of whom have agreed to play free of charge. More than just a fundraiser, the concert will be a celebration of Ukraine, and of freedom in general.
“The first half of the program will feature music from composers who were themselves refugees,” explains Bankas. “Bartok, Rachmaninoff and Kurt Weill. The second half will feature Ukrainian music and musicians.”
McEvoy did have some input on the line-up, too. At last year’s Music Niagara Brahms Oktoberfest event at Blackburn Brewhouse in Niagara Falls, she met Ukrainian-born soprano Inga Filippova, who performed that day.
“When we started talking about artists I asked him if he could book Inga,” says McEvoy. “She has such a beautiful voice. In fact, we wanted to have this concert earlier but she was too emotionally distraught with the situation, as she still has family there. She finally feels up to doing it now.”
McEvoy says she also helped Bankas line up the two Ukrainian acts on the bill: Korinya Ukrainian folk group and Silver Bells, a Bandura Trio. As well, she has invited Patricia Latyshko, president of the Ukrainian Women’s Organization of Canada, to introduce Silver Bells.
Bankas points out that the bandura, a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a cross between a zither and a lute, is especially symbolic for this program.
“In the times of the Russian Czar, the bandura was looked at as very nationalistic to Ukraine, and it was forbidden to be played. They did that to other cultures, too. In Lithuania, the language was forbidden to be spoken, their instruments were made illegal to be played, their books were forbidden to be read. It’s very symbolic to have this trio here.”
Also performing on May 12 will be perennial Music Niagara favourites Quartetto Gelato, 15-year-old violinist Gloria Verhovsky (a student of Bankas’), pianist Victoria Kogan-Korchinsky, soprano Mira Solovianenko (a Ukrainian native) and Bankas himself on violin.
The concert will also give Music Niagara an opportunity to announce their upcoming 2022 season. Bankas says a number of performers will be familiar to Niagara audiences from previous Music Niagara events.
In addition to familiar faces, the British acapella group The Gesualdo Six and Juno award-winner Susan Aglukark, who is known for blending Inuit folk music with pop and country on songs like the 1995 number one Canadian country hit O Siem, will be part of the 2022 lineup.
And, as in previous years, when composers such as Beethoven and Brahms were celebrated on their birthdays, this summer will focus on Franz Schubert in honour of the 225th anniversary of his birth.
The tireless McEvoy answered an email from The Local at 6 a.m. Tuesday. When it was suggested that she is a morning person, she demurred, informing The Local that her excitement for organizing this event with such great people as Bankas, Lade and Quartetto Gelato’s Colin Meier, makes it hard for her to sleep.
One benefit of all of her work on this project is that she’s been too busy to follow the news from the Ukraine as deeply as she did when the invasion began on Feb. 24.
“When the war started I was heartbroken by the destruction of the country and the loss of lives,” she laments. “It was important for me to do something more than just raising money and attending a rally. I envisioned this concert to enjoy Ukrainian culture through music.”
Bankas says the Toronto program, which was held on Lithuania Independence Day, was attended by about 400 people and raised $14,000. But McEvoy has set her sights higher, partially because some generous donors, including Rankin Construction with a $5,000 gift, have chipped in.
With the proceeds from the tickets, the wine and a raffle with 20 bottles of local Niagara wines as the prize, McEvoy is confident the local event has the potential to raise as much as $30,000 to hand over to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.
Tickets are $60 and are available at musicnigara.org. The evening begins with a reception at 5:30, and performances starting at 7 p.m.