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'They're genuinely suffering': Peoria Symphony Orchestra swaps 'Russian Wonders' for 'Unity with Ukraine'

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George Stelluto
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The view near George Stelluto's hotel in Kyiv, Ukraine.

From the arts to business to politics, Americans are evaluating their relationships with Russia.

Green Day canceled an upcoming concert in the country. Venues are pulling Russian alcohol from shelves. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called to end the city's "sister city" relationship with Moscow.

And here in central Illinois, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra is changing its April 23 concert program from "Russian Wonders" to "Unity with Ukraine." Instead of performing two pieces by Russian composers, pianist James Giles will perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. The orchestra will then perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2.

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George Stelluto
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George Stelluto is the music director for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.

For Peoria Symphony Orchestra music director George Stelluto, the change is a bit personal.

In 2000, Stelluto made his international conducting debut in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Since then, he's returned nearly a dozen times to conduct, and has maintained close relationships with fellow conductors, as well as musicians.

He said watching the war from afar is heartbreaking.

"To basically have those memories, and to have all those memories be so happy and so wonderful, and now they're just colored with, you know, the concern that that I have," he said.

Stelluto is staying in close contact with friends in Ukraine. Recent news from a Ukrainian pianist was difficult to hear.

"His wife's mother lives in Chernihiv, which is one of the cities that's being attacked. And two nights ago we were talking, and he said, 'You remember the building that was across the street from the concert hall, where we performed?' I said, 'Yeah.' He goes, 'Well, it's not there anymore.'"

Scheduled long before Russia's invasion began last month, "Russian Wonders" was set to include pieces by two Russian composers.

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A music hall in Chernihiv, Ukraine. The building across the street has been bombed by Russia.

Stelluto said the new pieces are much more appropriate for the moment.

Philosophical in nature, Beethoven's Fourth Symphony inspires a message of unity in listeners. And while Tchaikovsky is considered one of Russia's great composers, his father was actually of Ukrainian descent, and Ukrainian folk melodies are prevalent throughout his work.

In fact, Stelluto said the composer named Symphony No. 2, "Ukraine." (Though it is commonly referred to as "Little Russia" by Russians.)

During his visits to Ukraine, Stelluto said he was always struck by how passionate Ukrainians were about their music — despite attempts by generations of Soviet Union and Russian leadership to strip Ukraine of its history, language and culture.

"The independence of that nation also brought about a renaissance of their culture, and their pride in their culture. ... It's not even just pride, it's just a love for their country, for the nation they built," he said. "I'm just hoping that that doesn't disappear."

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The Mariinsky Summer Stage in Kyiv, Ukraine

Stelluto recalled one evening he spent in Ukraine after performing a 2-hour concert. He was hanging out in his dressing room when suddenly, the theater managed entered the room and told Stelluto, "Come! Come on!"

The man pulled Stelluto back into the concert hall, where he was offered a seat in the third row. And at 11 p.m., one of the region's most renowned musicians, Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, played a surprise concert that lasted until after 1 a.m.

"Not a single person left that hall," Stelluto said. "That's how much they appreciate their culture, their music. I'll just never forget that. ... It gave me chills. It's a very simple dedication."

Ukrainian musicians are so dedicated to their craft, that they often take three times as many concert engagements in hopes that one will pay them, Stelluto said.

"These musicians are not there getting rich, by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

Though he's not himself Ukrainian, Selluto said the crisis "hits close to home." He encouraged Peorians to attend the April 23 concert in solidarity with Ukrainians.

"They're genuinely suffering. And they're genuinely heroic," he said. "We're hoping people will come to the concert, and feel a spirit of support for them."

Learn more about the Peoria Symphony Orchestra's upcoming "Unity with Ukraine" concert online.

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The view from inside the National Philharmonic building in Kyiv, Ukraine.
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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.