St. Agnes Church packed for Ukraine benefit concert

Alexander Tentser played a selection of Ukrainian music at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid Monday, Aug. 14, assisted by page-turner Jean Alper. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

LAKE PLACID — Music aficionados and supporters of Ukraine gathered to hear Alexander Tentser play music by Ukrainian composers on a Boston baby grand piano at St. Agnes Church on Monday. Until recently, Tentser barely played Ukrainian music.

Born in Kyiv, Tentser moved to Moscow, Russia at 14. It was there that he trained as a pianist. He came to the United States in 1990 with his wife, Lake Placid Sinfonietta violinist Anna Gendler, to study at the University of Arizona. After earning his Ph.D. in piano performance and orchestral conducting in 1996, he began to teach continuing education courses at Pima Community College in Tucson. For decades, his courses covered almost every type of music under the sun — except music from his native Ukraine.

“I taught classical music, modern music, different varieties of piano music,” Tentser said. “They asked me about Ukrainian music (last year). I knew some things that I studied in school when I was a little child, so I remembered some things, but I didn’t know about the bigger picture. So I started doing research.”

Answering the call, Tentser dove into learning more about Ukrainian music — “listening to different compositions, reading about composers, also learning more about Ukrainian history, not what we learned in school during the Soviet times,” he said. As a result, the program he presented Monday night, “A Concert to Benefit Ukraine,” exclusively featured work by Ukrainian composers, including Mukola Lysenko, Viktor Kosenko and Levko Revutsky.

Tentser held his first relief concert for Ukraine in March 2022 — shortly after the Russian invasion into the country began — at the Rincon Congregational Church in Tucson, with relief efforts coordinated through the United Church of Christ and Reformed Church of Hungary. At the time, he had not yet started his journey through Ukrainian music, instead teaming up with Gendler and other musicians to play classical chamber music and contemporary music.

The Rev. John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, introduces Alexander Tentser as a “gifted and versatile musician” prior to a benefit concert for war-torn Ukraine on Monday, Aug. 14. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

Upon returning to Lake Placid this summer for Gendler to play in the Sinfonietta, Tentser reached out to St. Agnes Rev. John Yonkovig and offered to perform a benefit concert there — this time, with Ukrainian music on the docket.

Yonkovig, who is “exceptionally proud” of his own Ukrainian heritage, leapt at the chance.

“There’s a real consciousness here in the parish of concern for the people of Ukraine right now,” Yonkovig said. “The pictures (of refugees) on the paper are just so outrageous. I think it’s moved every heart. So, there’s just a desire to help, and Alexander Tentser … contacted me and offered to do this concert, and of course the response was immediate that we would do it.”

Tentser hopes that aid will go not only to the front lines but also to the civilians affected by the fighting in Ukraine.

“It may help to alleviate some pain,” Tentser said. “Military personnel, of course, young people, they know what they’re doing. But the elderly, and of course the children, they’re hurt too. So many families separated. So they need help the most, I think. The American government helps with military aid, but I think that civil structure needs a lot of help.”

St. Agnes Church has a history of fundraising for international and local relief, such as a recent Ukrainian Dinner that raised money for refugee relief and an annual Thanksgiving basket drive. The parish also has strong international and local ties to direct aid for Ukraine. The $8,141 raised on Monday will be allocated in three ways: To Anna Hoyt, a Saranac Lake resident who will soon travel to her native Poland to deliver supplies to refugees; to the Dominican Father’s Orphanage in Kyiv; and to the relief efforts of Dmitry Feld, a Ukraine native and longtime resident of Lake Placid.

Tentser plans to bring this benefit concert with its revised Ukrainian-centric setlist back to Tucson. He also intends to teach a course on Ukrainian music at Pima Community College in the fall. Yonkovig, meanwhile, will continue St. Agnes Church’s aid efforts.

“I think the people in this area are deeply concerned about the atrocities of the war,” Yonkovig said. “There’s a sense of frustration and trying to be able to help, and yet we’re so limited — but there’s just a great desire to reach out to those punished so badly by Putin’s war … both with an outreach materially but also in prayer. We pray for the Ukrainians almost every Mass. I think it’s touched people’s hearts in extraordinary ways.”

St. Agnes Church is still accepting donations for Ukrainian relief. Those who want to donate can contact the parish at 518-523-2200 for more information.

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