Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, People

UC Berkeley student brings musicians together for Ukraine benefit concert

Ph.D. student Lucas Spangher and a team organized the event, which will take place at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on March 13

Tryptic of a person playing cello
Ph.D. student Lucas Spangher (UC Berkeley graphic by Neil Freese)

Updated: March 15, 2022

At the March 13 benefit concert for Ukraine, organized by Berkeley Ph.D. student Lucas Spangher and a team, more than a dozen musicians performed at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

On the evening of Feb. 24, Lucas Spangher was working the cook shift at the Berkeley Student Cooperative, where he lives with more than 50 other UC Berkeley graduate and undergraduate students. He heard a buzz around the house, but was busy preparing and serving dinner, and didn’t think much of it.

“I didn’t know what was going on until a friend of mine handed me the Ukrainian National Anthem and was like, ‘Let’s play this on piano.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ And he told me Russia had invaded Ukraine. From that moment on, we began thinking of how we could honor Ukraine, each in our own ways.”

At Berkeley, Spangher is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. His research focuses on how to make artificial intelligence become more flexible for a transition to green energy.

As a kid growing up in Long Island, New York, Spangher thought about climate change all the time. “Climate change has weighed on me from a young age,” he said. “I remember very clearly being in third grade and thinking, ‘Oh, cool, my mom packed me Oreos in my lunch. But I can’t really enjoy them because climate change is happening.’”

two people standing next to each other smiling in front of a mural

Berkeley student Lucas (left) and his twin brother, Alex, will perform together at the benefit concert — with Lucas on cello and Alex on piano. (Photo courtesy of Lucas Spangher)

When he wasn’t thinking about climate change, Spangher was playing classical music. He took his first piano lesson at age 3, and by 4, he was practicing for two to three hours a day. At age 8, his parents thought he should be more well-rounded musically, so he also took up the cello. In high school, he spent every Saturday at a full-day music program at Juilliard, where he had a private cello teacher, took master classes and played in an orchestra.

So, when Spangher heard about the invasion of Ukraine, his experience in climate change activism and in music got him to thinking: Maybe he and some of his friends could put on an informal concert in one of their living rooms to honor Ukraine.

“There’s a common saying in climate change activism,” said Spangher, “which is just talking about climate change is activism, which I think is true. It makes action more likely. So, I think just talking about Ukraine and this really terrible event is a political statement, a form of activism.”

So, he reached out to a few people — and one of them, a woman from Ukraine, shared the idea with an online music group.

The event exploded overnight.

an empty theater with a stage and seats and a vaulted ceiling

Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. (Photo by Chayna Girling via Flickr)

Musicians from all over the Bay Area — opera singers, violists, pianists, harpists — saw the post and volunteered to perform a benefit concert of all-Ukrainian music. Event organizers jumped in and secured the 900-seat Herbst Theatre for Sunday, March 13, in downtown San Francisco and created an event listing.

“It turned into this amazing professional operation,” said Spangher, “which I think just speaks to the energy and communal desire to do something. This is more than just a fundraiser. It’s a political statement and a way to honor Ukraine’s amazing contributions to classical music that can’t be erased by a vicious autocrat.”

The event, called the Benefit Concert for Humanitarian Aid for Ukraine, begins at 3 p.m. and will include performances by more than a dozen musicians, including Ukrainian soprano Svetlana Nikitenko of the San Francisco Opera; harpist Anna Maria Mendieta of Tango del Cielo; baritone Mark Wilson, choral director of the Berkeley Gospel Choir; and Spangher on cello with his twin brother, Alex, on piano. There will also be speeches by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Francisco Consul General of Ukraine Kushneruk Dmytro. All proceeds will go to Nova Ukraine.

For Spangher, the concert has personal meaning: His grandmother’s family was from Kyiv and he’d always dreamed of traveling there and wandering around, seeing the life that his family used to live. But now, he’s not sure he’ll be able to. “It does strike me with a lot of sadness when I hear that Kyiv is irrevocably gone,” he said.

Spangher says he will consider the concert a success if people walk away appreciating the rich history of Ukrainian contributions to culture and music, and if everyone is able to express their grief in a collective space.

For those who can’t make the concert in person, the event will also be livestreamed. And there will be at least two other concerts following this Sunday’s event — one at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on March 26 and another at Liongate Manor in Los Angeles in April.

For more information about the upcoming events, including a livestream link and how to donate, visit the benefit concert’s Facebook page.