With a stirring rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, the first concert of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra came to an end in Warsaw late on Thursday evening amid thunderous applause from a packed house at the Polish National Opera. It was hard to believe that two weeks ago this orchestra did not exist and that these musicians had never played together.
The 74 musicians, all Ukrainian, come from many different orchestras inside the country and elsewhere across the world. They assembled in Warsaw 10 days before the concert for intensive rehearsals. More than half have spent the war in Ukraineand only left to join the tour.
Following its Warsaw debut, the orchestra is now on its way to London, where it will perform on Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Proms. Later stops include Edinburgh, Berlin and Amsterdam before the tour concludes with concerts in New York and Washington DC later in August.
“It’s amazing to be part of this, to be creating this music at this time,” said cellist Yevgen Dovbysh, of the National Odesa Philharmonic.
For Dovbysh, the tour has given him the chance to reunite with his wife, violinist Hanna Vikhrova, after five months apart. She left Odesa with their eight-year-old daughter on the first day of the war, and has since been living in the Czech Republic.
Dovbysh stayed in Odesa and spent the first months of the war volunteering to help the war effort, including by helping to fill sandbags with sand from the city’s beaches. More recently, on 1 July, he took part in Odesa’s first live concert since the start of the war, with an orchestra cobbled together from those left in the city.
“It was awful for the first two months, when we couldn’t play at all. Now it feels great to be focused on the music and to leave the feelings of war for a short time while playing,” he said.
Thursday’s concert began with the sombre, meditative Seventh Symphony of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. It was followed by Chopin’s Piano Concert No 2, performed by Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova, and an aria from Beethoven’s Fidelio performed by soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska.
Monastyrska, one of Ukraine’s best-known opera singers, said she immediately agreed when she received the invitation to join the tour. “I was very happy and very grateful. It’s a very pleasant surprise that so many people are supporting us,” she said the day before the concert.
She has not been to Ukraine since the war started but her son, brother and parents have all spent the war at home, close to Kyiv, so she has been compulsively scrolling through news from Ukraine every day. “It’s difficult to concentrate when you are always worrying about your relatives,” she conceded.
In a program note for the concert, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy emphasized that the orchestra tour should be seen as part of the war effort. “Everyone is bringing victory closer in their part of the front: in the military, diplomatic, humanitarian, informational and, of course, cultural fields,” he wrote.
“Artistic resistance to the Russian invasion is one of the most important, because the seizure of territories begins with the seizure of people’s minds and hearts.”
The idea for the orchestra was conceived by Keri-Lynn Wilson. The Canadian conductor, who has Ukrainian heritage, canceled her engagements in Moscow after the war started and began to plot a makeshift orchestra made up of Ukrainian musicians from across the world.
She asked Ukrainian friends to source the players among their friends and contacts, and engaged her husband Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to provide organizational muscle. In Warsaw, the ministry of culture agreed to fund a short residency for the hastily assembled orchestra to rehearse the programme.
“Channeling all my energy and anger over what’s happening into music has been fantastic,” says Wilson.
The orchestra gathered on 18 July in Warsaw to begin rehearsals, with more than 40 musicians arriving by bus from Ukraine. Male musicians received a special pass to leave the country for the duration of the tour, as Ukraine has a wartime law forbidding military-age men from leaving.
The rehearsals started with many of the players exhausted after long journeys from Ukraine and the first day was interrupted by the need for the musicians to go to the British embassy to apply for visas for the London leg of the trip, as Britain is one of the only countries in Europe not to waive visas for Ukrainians.
“It was rough, the first rehearsal,” Wilson remembered. “But the progress between the first and second rehearsal was just amazing. These are professional musicians and you can see how dedicated they are to this.”
The Warsaw audience agreed, giving the orchestra a long standing ovation as Monastyrska and Fedorova came out for a curtain call draped in Ukrainian flags.