A provocative orchestra of Ukrainian artists hopes Putin can hear them

Opera singer
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Early in the morning of February 24, Ukrainian violist Kateryna Suprun and her 2-year-old daughter were startled awake in their bed by a massive explosion. Sirens began to wail through the streets as Russian missiles rained down on downtown Kyiv.

Like many of his friends and neighbors, Suprun never believed this could actually happen; but within hours she was among tens of thousands of Kyiv residents grabbing what they could and evacuating the city. Suprun, her daughter and their two cats navigated traffic jams and panicked crowds on a harrowing four-day journey to the Polish border, where locals provided them with food and water.

“I will remember all my life the moment when we crossed the border,” 31-year-old Suprun told me in an email (translated from Ukrainian), “because I didn’t know if I would ever come back, [if] I would see my family, and if my beautiful country would exist.

Suprun is one of approximately 5 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled their country of origin; Another 7 million remain in Ukraine, but have been displaced from their homes. Today, nearly six months after the first strike on Kyiv, Suprun is one of 74 musicians united and touring the world as the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.

The orchestra, designed and conducted by Ukrainian Canadian conductor Keri Lynn Wilsonis composed entirely of Ukrainian refugees, Ukrainian members of European orchestras and musicians representing the Kyiv National Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kharkiv Opera and other Ukrainian ensembles.

Born from a collaboration between the Metropolitan Opera (Wilson’s husband is Met General Manager Peter Gelb) and the Polish National Opera, the orchestra quickly coalesced around a mission to stage, as the press release from the Met, the “artistic defense” of his homeland. His early gigs across Western Europe and Britain were met with rave reviews and long standing ovations. (The BBC recently released a stream of the orchestra Performance of the balls at the Royal Albert Hall.)

Next a pair of shows at Lincoln Center on August 18 and 19, the tour culminates at the Kennedy Center on August 20.

For Wilson, 55, the project is deeply personal. One of his cousins, from the town of Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine, went to the front lines in the Donbass at the start of the invasion and is still there. Her sister is a volunteer, driving trucks with medical supplies, and Wilson sometimes sends her supplies she can’t find — goggles, camouflage gloves, protective vests.

Wilson’s great-grandparents emigrated from Chernivtsi to Winnipeg, part of a massive diaspora of Ukrainians in Canada during the first decades of the early 20th century. But when she speaks of Ukraine as a “second homeland”, she specifies that “the homeland” includes Russia.

She fondly remembers being embraced as a Ukrainian artist when she traveled to Russia to direct at the Bolshoi Theatre, which she considers her artistic home.

“The irony is just sickening,” she said over the phone from a tour stop in Edinburgh, Scotland. “It really is like one nation.”

When the invasion began, Wilson felt the shock, horror and desperation to find a way to contribute – or at least release some of the angst she felt watching the footage unfold on television. . At the time, she was on a hazy tour for a solid month, invited to conduct four different orchestras in four different countries – leading them each in programs by largely Russian composers.

During a concert in March in Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gran Canaria, she added the Ukrainian national anthem to a program by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and delivered a short speech (in Spanish). She did the same on each subsequent date.

“A year ago, I would never have thought that we were playing Russian repertoire in this climate,” she recalls telling the audience. “But we were playing Tchaikovsky for ourselves. This was when they started canceling Tchaikovsky in Europe. So it was tricky, but I felt very, very strongly that we had to separate clearly: What is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and what is Russia?

Classical music is rarely the first responder in a crisis. All in all, it’s a slow machine with many moving parts, many of which are rusted by institutional inertia. But in cities across Ukraine, Russian aggression was met almost instantly (and seemingly instinctively) with volleys of artistic resistance, as orchestras, ensembles and individual musicians staged defiant public performances in squares. , apartments and metro stations in the city.

Music as resistance: the Kyiv orchestra plays

This spirit also seems to live in Wilson. His third week of this European tour was supposed to feature a run with the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra, many of whose members have been forced to flee.

The following week Wilson flew to London, met Gelb and wondered what she could do – fly to Warsaw and volunteer? Distribute food and blankets? She felt helpless before the images of millions of refugees streaming into Warsaw and wondered how many of them were musicians.

Enough to form an orchestra?

Wilson had accidentally hatched a plan that would consume the rest of his summer. Before Gelb reached the airport for his flight home, he had contacted his Polish National Opera counterpart, Waldemar Dabrowski, in a bid to join forces. Dabrowski was already hosting refugees at his home, including a musician from Kharkiv and her daughter, camping in one of their lodges.

Dabrowski was immediately signed and within days the three had tapped prestigious London gig agency Askonas Holt, who quickly pressed the orchestra into spots at a series of summer festivals across Europe – most of which are usually booked years in advance.

To assemble the orchestra himself, Wilson flew to Warsaw and met with Dabrowski’s team, administrators and musicians who, within 48 hours, produced a list of Ukrainian musicians interested in joining the orchestra. . Nearly a third would come from the Lviv orchestra, the others would play together for the first time.

(In Ukraine, although there is no conscript service for eligible males between the ages of 18 and 60, they are largely prohibited from leaving the country. Several male musicians have received special dispensations to perform , with the support of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. One was called on duty before the start of the visit.)

The Ministries of Culture of Poland and Ukraine provided funds for the orchestra to use the Polish National Opera’s Teatr Wielki, and rehearsals began. Ten days later, the orchestra gave its inaugural concert in Warsaw, a gesture akin to a rush to the front lines.

“I also wanted to fight. I would have no qualms about picking up a gun, but I took a stick,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s program is a finely tuned plea for peace, but also a strong stand for the strength and creative force of Ukrainian culture.

It opens on the intense beauty seventh symphony by the famous Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. At 84, he also fled Kyiv at the start of the invasion and now lives in Berlin.

The haunting 17-minute work was completed in 2003 in memory of Silvestrov’s wife, musicologist Larissa Bondarenko, who died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 50. Wilson was drawn to its elegiac potential as an expression of grief for Ukrainian soldiers lost in battle. . In its final moments, breaths pass soundlessly through brass, resonating lightly through their forms. Wilson regards them as the sound of “the breath of life, of the soul that lives on”.

“It was hard to hold back the tears in some places,” Wilson recalls repeating the Silvestrov. “Of course I did. I had to. As a conductor, you can’t let your emotions show too much.

In addition to Silvestrov, Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova will join the orchestra to perform Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, which was premiered by the composer in Warsaw in 1830.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska will sing “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? from Beethoven’s “Fidelio” – an aria that finds Leonora recoiling in horror at the monstrous cruelty and “wildem Grimme” (i.e. wild rage) of Pizarro the jailer, only to resolve herself, beautifully and inevitably , to find strength in love.

The program ends with Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, No. 9 and an encore according to Wilson, which broke the hearts of all the audiences who heard it.

It’s so easy, especially from an ocean away, to think of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra as another manifestation of our compulsion to equate art with often inert expressions of ‘hope’ and ‘humanity’ and respond to horror with beauty. The value of a pandemic of the performing arts defined by consciously summoned optimism has perhaps dulled our faith in art as more than just balm.

For Wilson, it’s a weapon. The orchestra is an operation. And musicians are soldiers. Nobody complains, she said. They smile. They are kissing. They play. They know what they are doing.

“It’s not just about making music. We are on a mission to fight,” she said. “Every day, Putin tries to silence Ukraine by all means: bombarding them, saying they have no culture, they have no tradition. He lies! When I saw everyone living in fear in their basement, not having the freedom to make music, it was just excruciating to me. This [concert] is a way of saying: “You will not win, because culture is the soul of Ukraine”. ”

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center on August 20 at 8 p.m. kennedy-center.org.