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Tijuana-based orchestra plays benefit concert for Ukrainian refugees

View of Tijuana, the border and San Ysidro from a Tijuana apartment building managed by real estate agent Gustavo Chacon Aubanel, March 2, 2022.
Matthew Bowler
View of Tijuana, the border and San Ysidro from a Tijuana apartment building managed by real estate agent Gustavo Chacon Aubanel, March 2, 2022.

The original members of the Baja California Orchestra mostly came from Moscow in the early 1990s.

At the time, classically-trained musicians from Mexico City and Guadalajara turned their noses at Tijuana. The border city didn’t have an established music scene and they could make a lot more money in the country’s interior.

So, Maestro Eduardo Garcia Barrios went on a recruiting trip to Moscow. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, its economy was in shambles, and there weren’t a lot of jobs for young musicians.


There he met Pavlo Getman, a bassoonist, and offered to bring him to Tijuana.

“‘Of course,’ I said,” Getman recalls. “The situation in Ukraine was horrible. We had just separated from Russia, all of the economic and financial institutions had collapsed. It was like the United States was in the 1930s.”

Getman joined the Baja California Orchestra in 1993. During those early years, the entire orchestra would speak Russian during rehearsals. They were all young musicians in a new country. Enjoying tacos and tequila while playing music.

“It felt like we were on tour,” he said.

Oxana Bulgakova, Getman’s wife and a piano player, joined him in 2004.


She worked as a piano teacher in Tijuana before even learning how to speak Spanish. Then, she joined the orchestra.

The current war

Getman and Bulgakova still have family in Ukraine. They feared the worst when Russia invaded.

“That first week, we didn’t sleep,” Bulgakova said.

Her mother stood in a crowded train for 12 hours to get to the Polish border.

Getman’s family has been living in an underground bunker.

“About 15 of them are in the basement,” he said. “They only come out to eat because the (missile) sirens go off every day.”

They both feel impotent being so far away from home. And recently, they’ve noticed the signs of the war in Tijuana.

On a recent flight from Mexico City to Tijuana, they were on an airplane with 15 Ukrainian war refugees.

“You can see the trauma on their faces,” Getman said. “They are afraid.”

Doing what they can

Unable to do much else, the couple is helping organize a benefit concert for the Ukrainian refugees.

The concert will be 3 p.m. Sunday at Mater Dei Catholic High School. All of the proceeds will go to Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that helps refugees in San Diego.

Bulgakova said musicians from both sides of the border have been very supportive.

“I called my musician friends, that’s how the concert came together,” she said. “We will have friends from Mexico, the United States, Cuba, Russia, Ukraine.”

Getman has really struggled with the feeling of helplessness over the war.

“What can I do?” he said. “Music unites us and it is the only thing we have left. Like the orchestra in the Titanic that played until the very end.”

This small charity concert is the one thing he feels he can do from half a world away.

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