These are turbulent times in Eastern Europe. In 2020, a popular uprising in Belarus was suppressed and the subsequent crackdown against dissident artists continues. Meanwhile, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February continues to threaten the country’s national and cultural identity. Belarusian conductor Vitali Alekseenok and his colleagues from Kyiv and Minsk believe they have no choice but to take a political stand: “There was no time to cry, to think – we we have to react, we have to act,” says Alekseenok.
In June 2021, he became artistic director of the Kharkiv Music Fest, which held concerts in the city’s bomb shelters, subways and hospitals during the war. Today, he brought together the Sophia Chamber Choir of Kyiv, the Free Choir of Minsk and the Gewandhaus Youth Choir of Leipzig for the “Campus Project: Eastern Europe”, initiated by Beethovenfest and Deutsche Welle.
The Free Choir staged flash mobs during protests in Belarus against dictator Alexander Lukashenko, which drew worldwide attention. The choir members were then imprisoned and tortured. They now wear masks when performing in public to protect their safety. Founded in 2007, the Sophia Chamber Choir has become an integral part of Kyiv’s cultural landscape. The war transformed his perception of his role and identity. Today, the choir sees itself as a cultural ambassador of its country and hopes that its concerts can help boost morale there. One of the highlights of the Campus Concert at this year’s festival was the premiere of “The Sky of Mary”, a work commissioned by Deutsche Welle. Belarusian composer Olga Podgaiskaya dedicated “The Sky of Mary” to her childhood friend Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent activist in Belarus and fierce opponent of Lukashenko, currently behind bars. Arts.21 accompanied Vital Alekseenok and the musicians during the rehearsals in Warsaw, and during the concert which took place at the beginning of September.
We also caught up with Tatsiana Khomich, Kolesnikova’s sister, who told us how much music meant to the imprisoned activist. Arts 21 asks the question: how do art and culture survive in times of war and oppression? What role can he play?