Amid tension, cultural exchange and appreciation at the Russian embassy

Washington (CNN)US-Russia relations are facing considerable scrutiny during President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, filled with scandal over communications between key Trump aides and Russian officials and allegations of Moscow meddling in the 2016 election.

But all of that was a world away Tuesday evening at the Russian embassy in Washington, as high school students from middle America participated in a rich cultural exchange.
About 200 high school students from the Homestead Spartan Alliance Marching Band, hailing from Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana, were in the audience for musical performances from American, Russian and Ukrainian artists as part of the Embassy Series, a recurring concert program that strives to unite people “through musical diplomacy.”
    Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, who himself is embroiled in controversy with the Trump administration due to his communications with once-national security adviser Michael Flynn and meetings with now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was expected to be in attendance and make remarks.
    Kislyak is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington, according to current and former senior US government officials. Russian officials dispute this characterization.
    But on Tuesday, he was unexpectedly absent.
    “Unfortunately, he is not able to join us,” cultural attach of the embassy of the Russian Federation Natalia Dementieva told attendees in a room with 18 chandeliers, gold curtains and mosaic artwork of St. Petersburg, relaying the ambassador’s support for the Embassy Series.
    The embassy did not respond to CNN’s inquiry regarding the reason for Kislyak’s absence.
    The students, who are on day four of their spring break visit to the nation’s capital, were mostly unfazed by the political climate. They mingled amongst themselves and their parent chaperones, drank juice and Coca-Cola products, and snapped photos on their cellphones in an embassy foyer during a pre-concert reception.

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    “This. Is. So. Cool,” one student said.
    “Honestly, it’s stunning,” said another.
    Homestead band co-director Steve Barber, who connected with the Russian embassy through the Embassy Series program, said he had no concern bringing his students to Wednesday’s concert.
    “This is a cultural experience,” Barber said. “We’re looking to expose our kids to the world around them.”
    But the evening’s program indicated awareness that the situation was unusual.
    “We realize that we live in different and difficult times where we are often buffeted by news that creates doubt and suspicion among peoples and nations, let alone notions of what is factual and what is not,” the event program said.
    “What we do, and what your children will do by participating in this extraordinary and unique experience, is to rise above the noise and tumult around us. The kids represent the best of what their communities have to offer the world,” it said.
    The students were mesmerized as Russian-American violinist Igor Pikayzen played Tchaikovsky alongside pianist Christopher Schmitt. They clapped along as the Ukrainian husband-wife duo of Dr. Andrei Pidkivka and Dr. Solomia Gorokhivska performed flute and violin together. And when 21-year-old Moscow-raised pianist Nikita Galaktionov spoke before playing a selection from Tchaikovsky, he received an extended round of applause.
    “God bless the day when America, Ukraine and Russian Federation absolutely forget about politics,” Galaktionov said.

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