Transatlantic Connections: How a Ukrainian Pianist and a St. John’s Violinist Connected through Music

When Ukrainian pianist Alla Melnychuk performs with violinist Maria Cherwick on Sunday, it will be her first sold-out concert in Canada.

The duo met through a Facebook group connecting newcomers from Ukraine with residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are now preparing an evening of classical music for piano and violin by Ukrainian composers.

Cherwick is a fixture in the St. John’s musical community, performing and recording with several local bands and the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. Although his friendship with Melnychuk is fairly new, hearing them easily slip into laughter, you’d think they’d been friends for years, rather than weeks.

“We have the same feeling in music so it’s easy to play together,” says Melnychuk. “Before our rehearsal we always have a conversation, probably for an hour.”

While his first contact with Cherwick was through the Facebook group, Melnychuk says, they met in person at an event featuring local Ukrainian-Canadian band the Kubasonics, of which Cherwick is a member.

“I went up to Maria and said, ‘I probably had a conversation with you on Facebook.’ And after that, we decided to meet for a coffee.”

“We’re not just friends because we both have a Ukrainian connection,” Cherwick says, “We talk about music and my cat and everything.”

A Ukrainian Connection

“Elements of Ukrainian culture and community have been really important in our lives,” says Cherwick, who grew up in Edmonton. Her cultural connection to Ukraine comes from her great-grandparents, who emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1900s and settled in Saskatchewan.

“With the Soviet Union, there weren’t really many people going back and forth for most of the 20th century, and so the Canadian-Ukrainian culture kind of evolved in its own way.”

The music she plays with her father and brother in the Kubasonics is rooted in her family’s Ukrainian heritage.

It’s not like a temporary place. We really feel like home.– Alla Melnychuk

Melnychuk’s family home is Chernihiv, and her most recent home is Kharkiv, where she has studied and worked for most of the past decade. Prior to her move to Canada, she and her then-fiancé were living temporarily in Poland and planned to return home to Ukraine in March.

“We were supposed to go home, get married,” she said. “But the war started, so we couldn’t go home, and his contract [in Poland] has ended.”

They flew to Canada in May with the first plane loaded with Ukrainian refugees and settled in St. John’s.

Melnychuk and Cherwick are pictured at a celebration in St. John’s for Ukraine’s Independence Day, where Cherwick performed with the Kubasonics. (Alla Melnychuk / Submitted by Lynette Adams)

A new home in Newfoundland

If you ask Melnychuk to play you a traditional Newfoundland song, she can give you The Saint John Waltz and The Harbor Grace Tour because she learned them for a performance at Harbor Grace earlier this year.

But even before the plane landed in St. John’s, Melnychuk had chosen to move to Newfoundland and Labrador. She remembers seeing a photo and thinking, “Nature is so, so beautiful, oh my God, where is it?” She was also drawn to the province’s reputation for safety and had heard that “it’s a little different from other [parts of] Canada, as friendly. And it’s true, the people are very friendly.”

Melnychuk continued the online teaching practice she had before coming to Canada, offering classes to students in several European countries, including Germany, Italy and Luxembourg. She also teaches part-time at Halliday Music Studio in St. John’s. In August, she and her fiancé got married.

She says they already feel settled in St. John’s.

“It’s not like a temporary place. It really feels like home.”

A Ukrainian directory

Cherwick and Melnychuk are preparing an evening of classical music for piano and violin that includes compositions by several contemporary Ukrainian composers, including Vitaly Filipenko, Myroslav Skoryk and Tatjana Kozlova, Melnychuk’s Kharkiv-based colleague.

“It’s amazing that through music, Alla and I can become friends and play this gig,” Cherwick says.

The duo will also perform works by Vladimir Ptushkin, who died earlier this year.

Meeting someone for the first time and being able to play like that is really special.-Maria Cherwick

“It will be an honor for me to perform his plays in his memory,” said Melnychuk, who studied with Ptushkin at Kharkiv National University of Arts.

Shelley Neville, mezzo-soprano from St. John’s, will join the duo as guest star. Melnychuk, who performed with Neville earlier this year, is teaching him to sing in Ukrainian.

The concert takes place at Bannerman Brewing Co. on Sunday. Proceeds from ticket sales will be sent to Ukraine, where volunteers will purchase and distribute winter clothing to people in need.

A friendship rooted in music

“I love the opportunity to meet different people and play all styles,” said Cherwick, whose musical interests range from classical to bluegrass to traditional Newfoundland. “If I can say yes to something, I always say yes, just because I like everything.”

She jumped at the chance to meet a new musician and play some new music, and the chemistry they share when performing is a bonus.

“When we rehearse…we feel it from each other,” said Cherwick, who enjoys the simpatico relationship with Melnychuk.

“Meeting someone for the first time and being able to play like that is really special.”

Melnychuk agrees: “It’s like fate.”

Even without Ukraine as a common ground, Cherwick sees music as the bond that binds her to Melnychuk.

“I think it’s amazing that through music, Alla and I can become friends and play this concert. We talk for hours, but even though we couldn’t speak the same language, we could still play these songs .”

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