Getting out of one’s own head can be difficult for any performer, but the task weighed heavily on Dmytro Choni, who performed Tuesday in Fort Worth as Russian forces continued attacks on his home country of Ukraine.

“It’s not easy at all,” Choni said in response to whether he had trouble focusing on his performance. “Of course I’m thinking of my parents, of my family who are still in Ukraine. But, well, I don’t know. I tried to focus on my performance today.”

He skillfully flew through renditions of Debussy’s “The Happy Island,” Ginastera’s Sonata No. 1, op. 22 and Ligeti’s Etude No. 5 “Rainbow” in front of an intimate audience.

The crowd applauds as Choni bows after his audition to compete in the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Of the 72 artists from across the world auditioning for a spot in this summer’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, he is the sole Ukrainian pianist in a field with just over a dozen Russian competitors.

On March 3, the Cliburn issued a statement condemning the Russian attacks on Ukraine and explained its decision to allow Russian pianists to compete. Festival officials noted the history of the competition and its namesake’s win at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, which they described as “One of history’s greatest testaments to the transcendence of art.”

Choni said he had many more pressing concerns than who else was auditioning.

“It’s all about personal approach, so I’m not judging by nationality,” Choni explained. “If a person is kind and good and peaceful, I’m totally fine.”

Brent Sasley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington with a focus in international relations. When asked whether prohibiting Russian musicians from competing would have any effect on Russia’s foreign policy, his response was direct.

“The short answer is no,” Sasley said. “In addition to just the sheer number of people, it would just be too small to affect Russian policy. It wouldn’t matter to him (Putin) anyways because he believes in Russia’s historical greatness. He believes that Ukraine is part of Russia. He believes that this is what Russia should be. It’s a great power and therefore it should recapture its territories and have its own sphere of influence in the area. And nothing is going to force him to change his mind.”

Although Sasley can understand why some people might want to take a stand and voice their concern, he said, it’s also important to note the impact of bans on artists, academics and athletes.

“They’re the ones who are normally most critical of their governments. And so the argument against banning them or boycotting them is that you’re hurting the people who are most likely to speak up or provide information to those who are interested in knowing what’s going on.

The cost of speaking in opposition to the Russian government’s policies comes at a high price. NPR reported just under 5,000 protesters were arrested in Russia over the weekend, and some were met with violence. No Russian pianists were made available for interviews out of concern for their safety and their families’. 

In the classical music world, severing ties to Russia is an especially difficult task, even beyond deciding who can or cannot compete. 

I love Russian music,” Choni said. “Many of them were also immigrants, you know, as Rachmaninoff, as Stravinsky or Prokofiev. (He) came back to the Soviet Union, but still. They all had their own story. And, it’s complicated. It’s impossible to just cut off all the Russian composers. So, of course I will be playing some Russian music. I mean, it’s a part of our repertoire.”

Choni said he’s been in contact with his family members during his trip to the United States. They have sought safety outside of their hometown of Kyiv, but he said they don’t want to leave the country.

Searching for the right words, Choni described music as a form of escapism.

“It’s always kind of a hide-away, I don’t know if the word is correct, from what’s going on in the world. And, through the music, you can try to project the best possible emotion, the optimism, the hope through the music. And well, this is something you can do for (other) people and for yourself.” 

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...

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