There is something universally stirring about classical music that can bind generations together and unlock long-forgotten memories.
Johann Sebastian Bach and Sergei Rachmaninoff provided that eternal link earlier this month, with their masterpieces coming to life at Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center
During an hour-long concert, classical music performed by Yaroslav Rudnytsky on the violin and Dominican Father Michael Burke on the piano filled the Our Lady of Wisdom auditorium. The immortal music both soothed and engaged the residents.
“I believe music comes from the heart – and it reaches people’s hearts,” said Father Burke, 79, whose father, an accordion player, taught him the piano scales when he was 4 and whose Jewish grandmother bought him a piano when he was 5.
“I had some good teachers who gave me a lot of gold stars, but I never really internalized it until I was 14 or 15,” Father Burke said. “At that point, I started playing the piano, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.”
Father Burke’s major ministry after being ordained as a Dominican priest in 1968 was to preach parish missions. As part of those missions, Father Burke stumbled across an idea that seemed to resonate with his reflective participants.
After he preached, he would walk across the sanctuary and sit behind the piano and play meditation music.
“I would always play after I preached,” Father Burke said. “From that point on, I said I would not preach without playing. One time a lady came up to me and said, ‘If I didn’t understand a word you said, it was all in the music.’”
An LPO fan
Father Burke is such an aficionado of classical music that he regularly attends performances of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO).
It was at one such concert – held about four years ago at First Baptist Church on Canal Boulevard – that he first met Rudnytsky in one of those only-in-New-Orleans moments.
After the concert, the parking lot was pure gridlock, so Father Burke decided not to even try getting his car in the exit line. Instead, he took out his rosary – “a Dominican is always ready to pray the rosary” – and began walking on the sidewalk around the Baptist church.
A few steps ahead, Father Burke saw Rudnytsky standing by his car in a similar predicament, and they started talking.
In subsequent meetings over the months, Father Burke explained a little of his own musical background and how his most recent ministry was to visit Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center, talk to the Dominican priests who were in residence there and celebrate Mass for all the residents.
In addition, Father Burke told Rudnytsky, whose nickname is Slava, that he regularly played the piano for the residents once a week.
First performance together
Earlier this month, Slava and Father Burke made their first appearance together at Our Lady of Wisdom, performing classical standards.
“These are songs that make them happy – songs they can remember,” Father Burke said.
Slava, 43, is a native of Kiev, Ukraine, and he has been in the United States for about 17 years. He came first as a member of the Kiev Symphony to perform with U.S. Christian choral director Roger McMurrin.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, McMurrin had been invited by an Episcopalian church in Kiev to perform Handel’s “Messiah,” which had been banned in Ukraine by the atheistic Soviet government for 70 years.
The initial success of the collaboration with the Kiev Symphony led to sponsorships that allowed McMurrin to bring the Ukraine musicians on tour to the U.S. and Canada.
“He was capable of preaching the ideals of Christianity through the medium of fine arts,” Slava said. “His primary goal was that you could make a representation of the holy Gospel through music.”
Advanced music degrees
In addition to touring, Slava was able to remain in the U.S. for higher education and earned two master’s degrees, one in music performance from DePaul University.
Slava joined the 70-member LPO eight years ago, and since then he has performed 39 weeks a year, a total of about 200 performances annually.
The LPO will make one of its biggest appearances next February when it performs at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Slava said the music he and Father Burke decided to play for the Wisdom residents was tailored to things they may have heard in their childhood.
“We wanted to do something that would really move people, touch them deeply, so that they would come out with the understanding that the fine arts pertain not only to the world’s biggest concert halls but are also wonderful in a small setting,” Slava said.
One of the most poignant pieces they performed for the residents was Bach’s “Ave Maria,” which was instantly familiar to the audience. (A portion of their rendition is available at https://www.face book.com/clarionherald/)
A wedding song, too
The “Ave Maria” had a double significance for Slava because it was the piece he and his wife Katherine chose as their wedding song a year and a half ago.
Katherine, an accomplished pianist and choral conductor, lives in Ukraine and hopes to join her husband full-time in the U.S. one day.
Slava said one of his greatest joys is to see the emotion on the faces of audience members.
“In the same setting, people could be moved in many different ways by different pieces,” Slava said. “You might see them holding on to their chair because they feel a sense of loss, and the music conveys a memory striking back to something they hold very dear. People love recognizing something, and that immediately builds a bridge with the past. That is the perfect moment for the performer to come in and make a statement.”
Slava was taught as part of his musical background in Ukraine never to look directly at the audience because that might be interpreted as showmanship or “eccentric movements,” when the real attention should be on the piece of music itself.
But when he opened his eyes at Our Lady of Wisdom, he could tell the music was doing what its composers intended it to do.
“For me, every single performance is a way of making a statement,” Slava said. “To see these elderly people happy and seeing something coming from deep inside – that’s the biggest reward.”
Father Burke, who also spends his time composing, said his friendship with Slava has brightened his life.
“He’s a very focused person and a strong character with strong values and morals,” Father Burke said. “He’s everything you would want in a good friend.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.