The concertmaster of the Momentum Chamber Orchestra lifted her bow high and slowly brought it back down. As the bow's feathers pressed against the strings of her instrument, its gentle shrill echoed inside the small, packed theater and shattered the audience's eager silence.
Her note was followed by overlapping notes from the viola, cello and bass as they worked to match her tune.
Silence falls once again.
They hold. They take a breath and start to play.
The chamber orchestra were performing at the second annual "When I Am Free" benefit concert for Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian organization that works internationally to help LGBTQ+ people escape persecution and help them get resettled in a new country. The concert also marked the launch of the Chicago 5 Lives campaign, a local end-of-the year fundraiser. Its goal is to raise enough money to save the lives of five people (approximately $10,000 per person) as part of the organization's bigger donation campaign to save 60 lives in 60 dayscalled "60 in 60."
By the end of the night on Dec. 3, the campaign already had $25,000 in donations.
Hosted at the Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theater, "When I Am Free" was a night of classical music performed by local musicians whose lives intersected with the immigration experience.
"The inspiration for tonight's program lies in the journeys of those who Rainbow Railroad assists. Words, of course, cannot adequately convey these experiences," noted Bruce Koff, vice chair of the nonprofit's board of directors. "We rely on art, specifically music and a bit of dance documentary to convey what is beyond words."
The concert's purpose was twofold: to raise money and awareness.
According to Rainbow Railroad, there are 69 countries where being LGBTQ+ is criminalized. Therefore, coming out would mean potentially exposing people to discrimination, incarceration and, in extreme cases, execution.
Koff explained that this year was particularly difficult because COVID-19 made international travel nearly impossible. In addition, the effects of the Taliban takeover have caused an influx of help requests. As of the end of November, Rainbow Railroad has received 4,318 requests from Afghanistan.
"Their situation is dire and everyday matters and every hour matters. And yet, we run into bureaucracy and nations that don't step up and say, 'We are going to take this many people,'" Koff said.
Rainbow Railroad also works with local organizations to make the move faster and safer. These partnerships establish a railroad of in-country resources to provide temporary support and safety when traveling isn't possible yet.
Koff said that although they can't help everyone, they respond to every request within a week. Since its founding in 2006, the organization has helped over 1,600 people.
Their clients' journeys with discrimination sometimes don't end when they arrive in a country where being gay was legalized. A lot of the immigrants may then potentially face both xenophobia and homophobia.
Koff wanted the benefit concert to not only tell the story of Rainbow Railroad but also spark a conversation about migrants and refugees.
All of the performers' lives intersected with the immigrant experience. Koff explained that most musicians moved to the U.S. from Venezuela to study music and can't return home due to the political unrest.
"To involve musicians who are new to this country is just as a way of demonstrating how we benefit, when we open our hearts and open our doors to people from other places," Koff said.
One of the concert's highlights was an original piece by local Mexican-American composer, Carlos Jaquez Gonzalez.
With only a guitar and two opera singers, Gonzalez's experimental piece, "Two Years. Two Months," tells the true story of two of Rainbow Railroad's clients who were paired up to escape North Africa together, and then they fell in love.
The piece blends together the message of the nightfinding hope within the darkness and highlighting the resiliency of the people Rainbow Railroad helps.
"[The migrants] find new meaning in whatever pain and horror that they experienced, by dedicating themselves to living freely," Koff said. "Most of them are dedicated to building a new life for themselves."
To donate to Chicago 5 Lives campaign, see donate.rainbowrailroad.org/team/391543 .