View original story by the School of Music at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

by Brooks Clark

Ukrainian violin student Marki LukyniukStanding before the Rotary Club of Knoxville, 22-year-old Ukrainian violin student Marki Lukyniuk, wearing a Ukrainian shirt his grandmother embroidered for him, said, “We thank you for your support of my country. We feel your support.”

Lukyniuk played a Ukrainian melody called My Dear Mother then quickly transitioned to James Brown’s I Feel Good, shredding some funky solos. He then introduced a romantic song, As You Are by the Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy (Esla’s Ocean). “I used to get Ukrainian girls with this song,” he said with a smile. Indeed, the sentimental strains seemed to make an impression on some of the female Rotarians.

“Marki is outgoing and charismatic,” says Professor of Violin Miroslav Hristov. “He is a very talented young man with a broad spectrum of interests. He is studying to play standard classical repertoire, but I’m very happy to see him explore different genres of music that will make him a more versatile artist.”

Before his next selection, Marki asked if anyone knew the difference between a violin and a fiddle. “If you spill a beer on a fiddle,” he answered, “It will be fine.” With that, he ripped into a rousing version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia. While the Rotarians packed gift sacks for refugee families, Marki played Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and, of course, Rocky Top. “I was on campus for the Alabama game and saw the masses of people wearing orange clothing and singing this song,” says Lukyniuk. “I heard Rocky Top like a hundred times that day.”

The Reality of War

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Marki was in his junior year at the Kyiv Conservatory, also known as the Pyotr Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine. As the bombs fell on Kyiv, he told the News Sentinel, “I just woke up and here it is, the war itself. I saw a lot of Russian military machinery and a couple of Russian soldiers. I saw military helicopters and explosions. I saw damaged houses and damaged goods. It’s not a pleasant experience.” Kyiv had no water. “It was scary just to go to sleep.”

His brother, Kostia, also a violinist, was in Kyiv after the visa ran out for his studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. A week after the invasion, they fled to their western Ukraine hometown, Chernivtsi, near the Romanian border. Their father, Petro, is a Ukrainian Orthodox priest. Their mother, Yaroslava, keeps house and a productive garden. “I sang in the church choir for four years,” says Marki.

To support their country, the brothers made videos of themselves playing the Kalush Orchestra’s Stefania (as seen on Eurovision 2022) and Our Father Bandera, a folk song associated with the Ukrainian fight for independence, that quickly got tens of thousands of views.

They played dozens of concerts in Ukraine and Europe. “We were comforting people who had lost a lot of stuff, even parents,” says Marki. “We wanted to cheer them up and show them that life can still be beautiful. My dad knows lots of people who were reaching out for help.” In Chernivtsi they performed for pregnant women who had fled their pregnancy center in Kyiv after it was bombed. “We collected money to support people locally, and those who were going to the front lines and needed basic items like medications, food, and supplies.”

UT Jumps in to Help

Marki wasn’t sure what he was going to do, when he got a call from Oleksiy Hamov (’16), who had studied under Hristov. “He’s from Chernivtsi and has been a friend since childhood,” says Marki. “He suggested that I reach out to Professor Hristov. I did that, and we started a conversation that led me to where I am now. It has been my dream for a long time to study in the US. That’s why I started to learn English in middle school.”

Says Hristov, “I come from Bulgaria, right across the Black Sea from Ukraine, so I knew there were a lot of talented musicians there. Oleksiy, my former student, knew Marki. I had heard talk around UT about accommodating people from Ukraine. We had numerous phone calls between the School of Music and the provost’s office. I was so pleased that, in the end, we were able to jump in and make his dream of studying in the United States a reality.”

“I was so grateful to get this opportunity,” says Lukyniuk, who arrived in mid-September, after he got his visa. “My first day everyone was trying to help me in some way. I felt that this is like a big family here.

“I had to do a lot of work to catch up with my studies. This has been my first time in the US and first time learning in English. Professor Hristov is friendly and supportive of me. He knows so much about music that I want to learn. Right now, we’re working on the hardest piece I’ve ever played, the Sibelius Violin Concerto.”

Marki created a student organization, the String Players Visionary Club. “It’s for everyone who wants to push the limits,” he says, “to go beyond classical training and try different genres and different styles that can be performed in church, in the bar as well as in the recital and concert hall.”

Supporting the Cause

Lukyniuk has raised thousands of dollars playing for civic groups like Rotary and Civitan Club, at the Student Union on November 16, and at bars and private parties. “Over winter break,” he says, “I visited my brother, who’s now studying at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. We played a concert at the Fiddlershop headquarters in Pompano Beach, and I played parties in West Palm Beach and Miami.”

On January 28, Marki performed for the KiMe 10th Shakin’ Not Stirred Gala & Fundraiser at the Knoxville Convention Center. His set included Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal along with Ukrainian songs. “It’s about this beautiful music and culture,” he says.

Marki likes Potchke, the Gay Street deli that serves borsch, the Ukrainian beet soup. “It felt like home when I took the first bite of it,” he told the News Sentinel. “They do it pretty much like traditional borsch should be.” On Tuesday, February 18, at 6:30 p.m., he will perform a fundraiser, “From Ukraine with Love,” at Potchke. Marki and Kostia are invited to take part in the Ukrainian festival in Philadelphia in the summer and will present their duo project “LuckyBrothers”

“I’m doing all those concerts and shows to show how grateful I am,” he says. “When I saw the football game I got inspired. I would like to get on big stages and one of my dreams is to perform the American national anthem at arenas or stadiums before games.”