Going to see live music with a full orchestra isn't a common activity for college students, but it sure is an underrated one — especially with State Theater New Jersey, right around the corner off George Street, offering affordable prices to see some of the greatest orchestras on a global scale.
I managed to see London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra last year, so when I received tickets to see the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra for Christmas, I was excited, to say the least.
We arrived late, unfortunately, due to a personal issue printing the tickets, and as a result, the principal conductor, Theodore Kuchar, stared the other latecomers and us down until we took our seats.
It was with that same command that he led his orchestra, swiftly bringing the musicians to the beginning of "Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Flute and Strings," composed by Yevhen Stankovych, one of Ukraine's most famous modern composers.
I thought the first solo choice was interesting, as did someone else in the audience who I heard discussing it during intermission. I'm used to seeing string soloists and often prefer it in concert performances, but I've never seen a flutist perform a solo. I have to say, I was glad to see the change, and the flute solo was absolutely delightful.
The second section was by far my favorite. The piece was Edvard Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16," and the solo was performed by Oksana Rapita, an accomplished pianist. Sitting in the middle of the fourth row, I was lucky enough to have one of the best views in the whole theater, able to watch Rapita's hands move swiftly across the keys with skill and technique that even the most talented pianists would be envious of.
The way that Rapita and Kuchar responded and played off of each other during her solo displayed each of their respective talents and the passion that comes with playing live that every musician knows well.
The nature of such a relationship means that each performance may be unique, as either one could make a slightly different choice to change the sound — something that makes live concerts really worth the money.
This was undoubtedly the night's highlight for me, but I felt the third piece wrapped up the night very well.
The final piece was performed without a solo and was what many in the audience were most excited for: Ludwig van Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7." I've heard this piece many times and even played part of it in high school, so it was incredible to listen to it played live by an incredibly talented orchestra.
It was during this piece that Kuchar's skills as a conductor became obvious. Not restricted in his movements, Kuchar leaned and bent with the piece. He moved wildly with joy at times and slowed with somber beats, and the relationship between the conductor and each musician seemed particularly special at this moment.
It wasn't just the performances that made this evening so special, but also the audience's response. There was a full standing ovation both after the second soloist's performance and when the entire show concluded. The applause went on for an extended period of time, and I found myself understanding how standing ovations can go on for so long at other live events.
As the conductor tried to explain what this audience's reaction meant to him and his musicians, mentioning that they'd played at venues all over the country, including Radio City Music Hall, and had never gotten a response like this, someone from the audience called out a request. Fueled by the crowd's energy, Kuchar obliged and immediately swept back into it, playing the song much to the crowd's enjoyment.
Afterward, as we rose to our feet for yet another round of applause, two members of the orchestra stood, holding the Ukrainian flag. As I took stock of the roaring crowd, I noticed then that many of the musicians wore the blue and yellow colors of the flag. They stood tall and proud as the flag did on stage, and for that moment, we were all united in our immense pride and support for Ukraine.
It's impressive to me that the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra made it all the way from Ukraine to my local theater during a time of invasion and war. It's a dark chapter in the country's history, yet its music continues. Cultures survive through their art.
Part of the proceeds from ticket sales went to the Ukrainian Red Cross Society, a branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross that has aided communities in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian War.