The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, Soldiers On The “Cultural Front” Of The Russia-Ukraine War

Among the many Ukrainians who have fled the horrors of the Russian invasion is the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. Now temporary residents of the east German city of Gera, the orchestra is fighting on the war’s pivotal cultural front

‘Good morning, there is war. The rehearsal is cancelled.’ This simple message was written by the director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, Oleksandr Zaitsev, in the orchestra’s group chat on 24 February 24 2022. They had been rehearsing the day before for a concert with opera singer Matthias Goerne that should have happened the following week. In the particularly uncertain days after the invasion began, many members fled Kyiv and Ukraine, then the orchestra filed a request with the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine to go abroad as a whole. Military targets were under Russian attack, but so was Ukrainian life and culture. The war’s ‘cultural front’ and Ukrainian culture’s fight for its continued existence was on minds throughout the country. Ukraine was determined to show the diversity and greatness of its culture to the world and not let it be affected by the Russian invasion.

“Our art, our music, is our weapon”

The ministry responded to the orchestra’s request: it would be possible to go abroad if the orchestra had an invitation. This came through the artist agency KD Schmid from Germany. In just three weeks, they organized the Voice of Ukraine concert tour which took the orchestra across Germany. ‘I began to call our musicians to ask them to join us on that tour,’ Zaitsev recalls. ‘But some of them were already in occupied territory; some of them were in shock and didn’t even take the instruments.’ Gathering them all together was therefore difficult, especially since many members did not want to leave their families and pets behind. In total, there were 130 people, including family members, who went on tour. The first joint stop outside the country was at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, Poland, where the orchestra could practice before the tour. On 21 April, the orchestra played the opening concert of the tour here, after which they continued to Germany via the Polish city of Łódź.

The orchestra practicing the musical accompaniment of the film classic Nosferatu together with conductor Vitalii Protasov © Jacob Queißner 

With the end of the tour in June, the temporary accommodations fell away and with the orchestra’s rehearsal location in Kyiv unavailable, it began to look for a longer-term place to live and practice. This was found in the German city of Gera. The vice president of the German Parliament, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, helped facilitate this, inviting the orchestra to the Bundestag to learn about the situation. As a Thuringian, she remembered the eastern Thuringian city of Gera, which had previously shown solidarity with Ukraine and, in an exchange with mayor Julian Vonarb, a place for the entire orchestra to stay and rehearse was found. The current accommodation is the Tonhalle in Gera’s city centre, also used by the theatre of Altenburg-Gera and the Gera Youth Council, among others.

“Gera is a wonderful place to live; it has become a second home for the orchestra”

An additional benefit for this location was the large vacancy of flats in Gera. Since the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the city has had to struggle with many people moving away. In this case, however, the resulting vacancy was an advantage, and it was easy to accommodate the orchestra and entourage. The 96,000-people-town is mostly known for the painter Otto Dix, international athletes like Olaf Ludwig, Hanka Kupfernagel or Heike Drechsler and being once one of the richest cities in Germany. ‘Gera is a beautiful and calm city,’ Zaitsev observes and, despite being far from home, the orchestra likes it here. ‘It is very comfortable for us.’ finds cellist Vasyl Yurchak, who, like everyone in the orchestra, is very grateful to Gera.

11 dscf8242 edit‘It is very comfortable for us.’ Cellists Vasyl Yurchak and Daria Dziadevych © Jacob Queißner 

But not everything in Gera is so pleasant. Through the city, in whose east uranium was mined for the Soviet union during the GDR, a demonstration passes directly by the Tonhalle every Monday. Led by the far-right movement, it is directed against many issues, but mainly against the government. They carry old German Reich-flags, Russia flags and sometimes even wear Putin shirts. ‘I was honestly irritated when I first saw it,’ says cellist Daria Dziadevych, who, like other orchestra members, doesn’t understand it. In general, she senses some ‘post-Soviet union vibes’ in Gera. ‘It just hurts me so much,’ violinist Tetiana Bahrii reveals. ‘A democracy, in my opinion, can’t justify support for murders, destruction of cities, rapes and tortures and all the terrible things the Russians do, because this is already becoming propaganda for supporting of their crimes.’ The resistance against this movement in Gera started small. At the beginning, there was a counterprotest from the democratic movement, but when the war started counter-protests died down. Since then, there have only been a few actions, such as one where the demonstration was accompanied by circus music. In February, a video of that action went viral on social media. Zaitsev, in turn, simply ignores them. ‘Let’s do more good things to make less place for the bad things,’ he thinks. ‘Our art, our music, is our weapon.’

Zaitsev finds that Ukrainian music is comparable to other European music. In addition to old familiar composers such as Beethoven, Mahler, and Verdi, they increasingly play pieces by Ukrainian composers, such as Myroslav Skoryk, Yevhen Stankovych, Borys Lyatoshynsky, and Levko Revuts’kyi. They want to show that Ukrainian classical music is an integral part of European culture and at many performances, people approached the orchestra and wanted to know more. ‘By playing Ukrainian music, we can tell people about Ukraine,’ says Bahrii, summing up the orchestra’s mission. She hasn’t been with the orchestra long, and neither has her husband, who is employed as a sound engineer. The war has made them realize once again how important their work is. Every day there is bad news from home. ‘Our musician life is better here now,’ Bahrii describes the feeling, ‘but our mental life is in Ukraine all the time.’ Her colleague Dziadevych sums up their situation: ‘We cannot distract, we have to play.’

15 dscf8132 edit.jpg?width=800&height=533Every Monday, the same sight from the windows of the Tonhalle: a right-wing demonstration with Russian flags © Jacob Queißner 

The war, and the orchestra’s displacement, have given its players a renewed sense of purpose. ‘Since the beginning of the war, I’ve been performing music in a different way,’ Bahrii tells us. Chief conductor Luigi Gaggero also notices a difference: ‘They are even more present in every note, because today they feel even more than usual the need for there to be a presence in every note.’ The Italian conductor has led the orchestra since 2018 and, as professor of cymbal at the Strasbourg Conservatoire and the Académie Supérieure de Musique in Strasbourg, also teaches the next generation. In 2023 alone, there were two conducting masterclass courses in Gera, where young musicians from Ukraine and around the world learn to perfect the craft. At least two more will follow in 2024.

Since leaving Ukraine, the orchestra has played in many different venues, including the NATO summit in Madrid, the Paris Philharmonic and the Canary Islands. ‘We open the Ukrainian culture and music to Europe,’ Zaitsev puts it. The Berlin Philharmonic recently called the orchestra ‘one of the greatest cultural ambassadors of Ukrainian culture’.

“We cannot distract, we have to play”

‘Gera is a wonderful place to live; it has become a second home for the orchestra’, says Olha Tsyhanok, head of the orchestra’s PR. ‘Nevertheless, the orchestra’s continued stay in Gera is uncertain, given that it is a small city with its own philharmonic orchestra.’ Currently, they are looking for a new residence for the orchestra in another German town. While it is unclear how long the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra will remain in Gera, it is clear where the 2023-24 season will take them. They played 10 concerts from the beginning of the season in August until Christmas, and opened one of Europe’s leading classical music festivals in Grafenegg, Austria in August. In September, they even split the orchestra, to play at two venues, the ‘Kunstfest Weimar’ and the ‘Prague Sounds’ festival, followed by a performance with cellist Ludwig Quandt in the Berlin Philharmonic in September. Back in Gera they provided the musical accompaniment to the silent film classics Nosferatu and Metropolis.

This year promises similar variety, with at least one concert every month until August. Following two concerts in Berlin in January, the orchestra’s next performance will see it return to the Warsaw National Philharmonic in Poland for a concert on 8 February. On 3 March, the orchestra will travel to the Isarphilharmonie in Munich before going back to Berlin on 21 April. Alongside the National Choir Capella of Ukraine ‘Dumka’ the orchestra is part of the performance of Stankovych’s Kaddish Requiem Babi Yar at the Vienna Konzerthaus in Austria on 2 June. ‘Now we have something to do,’ Dziadevych says, ‘we really hope that it helps.’

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