Valley man honors Ukrainian heritage through his music
LORDSTOWN — Fred Yasnowski is proud of his Ukrainian heritage and combines his ethnic background with his love of music as a member of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America, into which he was inducted in 2017.
He was born in Sharpsville, Pa., and graduated from Sharpsville Area High School in 1976. His grandfather emigrated to the United States from Ukraine.
Yasnowski graduated from United Electronics Institute Technical College in Cuyahoga Falls with an associate’s degree in applied science in biomedical technology. He also is a certified biomedical technologist through the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation.
Yasnowski, 65, is a clinical engineering quality analyst employed by CommonSpirit Health System in Chicago. He previously worked as a biomedical manager at Mercy Health-Youngstown.
He and his wife, Lil, who is of Croatian descent, met at the Strossmeyer Croatian Picnic Grounds in Vienna, where Lil was playing with her Croatian Tamburitza band. They have been married for 36 years and traveled to Ukraine for the first time in 1999 to adopt their son, Paul.
“He is our pride and joy and has grown to be a handsome man and is currently a college freshman,” Yasnowski said.
He and Lil last visited Ukraine in 2018, staying with the same family who hosted them in 1999.
However, he got a taste of the country on Dec. 4 when he performed “The Carol of the Bells” (Shchedryk in Ukraine) with the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The song was written by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych and it debuted in the U.S. in December 1922 at Carnegie Hall, making the Dec. 4 performance a 100th anniversary celebration of the carol.
“To have the opportunity to perform in a venue such as Carnegie Hall and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the debut performance of this carol in the USA is truly an honor and blessing. Walking on to the Carnegie Hall stage and seeing nearly 3,000 in the audience was breathtaking. The beauty of the hall and the superb acoustical quality will resonate in my mind and be cherished for a long, long time,” Yasnowski said after returning home earlier this week.
He said the Shchedryk Children’s Choir from Kyiv, Ukraine, prior to coming to the United States for the concert, was rehearsing in basement bomb shelters with flashlights.
“One’s heart could only break knowing that they have to travel back to that situation,” Yasnowski said, referring to the war against Russia.
The Dec. 4 concert was attended by Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya and other diplomatic dignitaries. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who earlier this week was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” and First Lady Olena Zelenska gave video addresses to the audience.
“This chorus preserves and exemplifies its mission as ambassadors of Ukrainian culture, music and the unique 60-stringed national instrument of Ukraine, the bandura. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, through its mission, continues to support Ukraine, and I am honored to be part of it,” Yasnowski said.
ROAD TO INDUCTION
It wasn’t easy to be selected as one of the chosen few to travel with the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. Yasnowski was able to set up an audition in America in 2016 and was granted a nine-month probationary period in which he attended all practices and performances throughout America.
His persistence and the ability to play the bandura, a Ukrainian instrument that combines elements of the zither and lute, helped him to be chosen as a full-fledged chorus member in 2017.This organization was founded in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv in 1918.
Yasnowski was a singer and drummer in a band called The Musical Collection that he started at the age of 16 and performed for 15 years. It specialized in weddings, dances, festivals and other private social events. He was also a drummer in the Jack Vasko Orchestra, and was in the choir at St. Anne’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Austintown and Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Youngstown, where he and Lil were married. He also sang with the Western Pennsylvania Ukrainian Cultural Trust Chorus of Pittsburgh.
He also plays the bugaria, a Croatian instrument with an Eastern European folk band called “The Zaps.”
Mastering the playing of the bandura took years of practice.
“This musical instrument is over 100 years old and is a unique and powerful Ukrainian symbol, which is an emotional and historical bond to our people,” Yasnowski said.
Once he became an official member of this renowned chorus in 2018, he toured Ukraine’s most classic venues, performing at the renowned Kyiv Metropolitan Opera House, the National Philharmonic of Ukraine, and the world famous Lviv Opera House. During the 100th anniversary tour, they conducted many outreach performances at Ukrainian schools and military hospitals.
The UBC also sang the responses for liturgies at St. Volodymyr Orthodox Cathedral in Kyiv and St. George Catholic Cathedral in Lviv.
The current UBC membership consists of first-, second- and third-generation Ukrainians, and also includes musicians from the U.S. and Canada, Yasnowski said. The UBC has performed concerts worldwide, including venues in North America, Europe and Australia.
EXPERIENCES OF A LIFETIME
“These musical lifetime experiences that my wife and I have been blessed with would have not been possible if I was not a member of Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America,” Yasnowski said.
Yasnowski found it difficult to talk about the atrocities of the war between Russia and Ukraine, but did say, “What makes all of this so disheartening is that recent reports state that two of the venues where we performed (in 2018), The Kiev National Philharmonic and a grade school where the children presented a recital for our chorus, was recently hit by Russian missiles.”
Being chosen to perform the “Carol of the Bells” at Carnegie Hall with the UBC brought mixed emotions to the Yasnowskis.
“Who would have ever have imagined that only four years ago, when Lil and I last visited, many of these historic buildings and surrounding areas and are now reduced to rubble,” Yasnowski said. “Our hearts are broken for all of the innocent people and we pray for them in their quest to win the many battles and the war as they fight on. We are a strong heritage and are fighting to keep our customs and traditions, and our people alive.”
Donations for the Ukrainian people can be made by check or a money order to: St. Anne Ukrainian Catholic Church “Aid for Ukraine,” 4310 Kirk Road, Austintown, OH 44511.
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