Playing From the Heart and For Her Country 

Irena at Carnegie Hall January 8. 2020

“I feel a great deep grief. Why is this happening? It’s hard to grasp, it all appeared so suddenly. And it’s 150 per cent not fair.” 

As Ukrainian-born classical pianist Irena Portenko, now a resident of Dobbs Ferry, refers to the carnage and suffering Russian forces have inflicted on her country, tremendous emotion is audible in her voice. Her parents live in Kyiv and her mother is not well. “My mother was due for a heart procedure on 24 February,” Portenko said. “She went into hospital on the 23rd and preparations for her surgery included IVs. But the next morning, there was no one to take her to the operating theater. War had started and everyone was lined up at the hospital ATM, trying to get money.” Portenko’s mother, with IVs still attached, joined the line.  

Later, her daughter helped arrange – from Westchester – a taxi to transfer her parent home. “It was surreal, like a bad dream, or a horror movie that isn’t ending,” Portenko said. Her mother still has not had her procedure, but Portenko speaks to her family daily. “We say goodbye every night and meet every day with a full smile. If you meet every day, it’s a good day.” 

A pianist, teacher and music festival organizer, Portenko has been lending her own skills to the Ukrainian cause and performed in two benefit concerts in March – one at the Tarrytown Music Hall, organized by Tara Framer, the other at Carnegie Hall, where she had made her debut in 2009. “I have assimilated into this society, but in my heart and soul I am very Ukrainian,” she affirms. 

Portenko, who has perfect pitch, was an infant prodigy, showing signs of musical ability at age three. By age eight she was debuting as a soloist with the Ukrainian National Orchestra. “I’m the third generation of professional musicians in my family,” she said. “My grandmother was a pianist too, and a linguist. Her ability to speak French and German fluently helped her survive World War II, when the Germans occupied Kyiv, and she was helping save Jewish children, hiding them in her basement. 

Irena’s grandmother who she was named after

“She was beautiful, an intellectual, awarded nine medals for her partisan work. And I feel her around me now, guiding me, even though she died in 2008. She is my talisman.” 

And so is Portenko’s mother, a pianist as well, a professor at the National Academy of Music of Ukraine, and a member of the orchestra at Kyiv’s Opera and Ballet Theater. “She’s very tough, very fair, always knows what things should sound like. She is my North Star.” 

After an intensive musical education in Ukraine, Portenko was offered an opportunity to study in the U.S., first at Michigan State University and later at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she received her master’s and then her doctorate. “Since the age of eight I have been performing all the time, up to three weeks before the birth of my daughter.” she said.  “There is no break in performing, whatever happens in my life. Performance is a state of mind for me, channeling the beautiful music I love.” 

Portenko has made frequent trips to Ukraine throughout the years, and also, nine years ago, became the director of “Music in the Alps” Festival in Austria, an opportunity for young people to meet and engage with professional musicians in a mountain setting. This year, she is worried for the young male Ukrainian musicians – “Young boys who dazzled audiences cannot continue with their passions but now must stay behind to help with the fighting.”  

Fully occupied as Portenko is – performing, recording, accompanying the choirs of Scarsdale School District, teaching in her own studio and also at the Music Conservancy of Westchester – she is focused above all on her hopes, and fears, for her homeland. “People fight for freedom, but freedom comes at a very high price,” she said. “We have to prove we are strong at home, and abroad we have to be strong for those left behind. We are all connected through our hearts and souls, wherever we are,” she asserts.  

Irena, her mother and her daughter after a performance of Carmina Burana in Innsbruck 2018. Mother and daughter were part of the orchestra.

And she draws strength from her daughter, who is studying medicine in Arizona. “She does a lot of volunteer work by labeling, packaging and sending medical supplies, collaborating and organizing charity work. I’d say she inherited my grandmother’s and my mother’s strength and resilience. She is my true inspiration in general, but especially in the way she is handling the situation,” Portenko said. 

Portenko has set up a GoFundMe to support Ukrainian musicians. Donations are being made at gofundme.com/f/help-support-displaced-ukrainian-musicians. Donations can also be made to unitedhelpukraine.org or razomforukraine.org.

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About the Author: Elsbeth Lindner