With a moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, the first concert of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra ended in Warsaw late Thursday evening to thunderous applause from a packed house at the Polish National Opera. It was hard to believe that two weeks ago this orchestra didn’t exist and that these musicians had never played together.
The 74 musicians, all Ukrainian, come from many different orchestras inside the country and elsewhere in the world. They met in Warsaw 10 days before the concert for intensive rehearsals. More than half spent the war in Ukraine, and only left to join the tour.
After its debut in Warsaw, the orchestra is now on its way to London, where it will perform at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday as part of the Proms. Later stops include Edinburgh, Berlin and Amsterdam before the tour concludes with gigs in New York and Washington DC later in August.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this, to create this music at this time,” said cellist Yevgen Dovbysh, of the Odessa National Philharmonic Orchestra.
For Dovbysh, the tour gave him the chance to reunite with his wife, violinist Hanna Vikhrova, after five months apart. She left Odessa with their eight-year-old daughter on the first day of the war and has lived in the Czech Republic ever since.
Dovbysh remained in Odessa and spent the early months of the war volunteering to help the war effort, including helping fill sandbags with sand from the city’s beaches. Most recently, on July 1, he took part in Odessa’s first live concert since the start of the war, with an orchestra cobbled together from among those who remained in the city.
“It was horrible the first two months, when we couldn’t play at all. Now it feels good to focus on the music and leave the feelings of war for a short time while playing,” he said.
Thursday’s concert opened with the somber and meditative Seventh Symphony by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. It was followed by Chopin’s Piano Concerto 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 accepted when she received the invitation to take part in 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 hasn’t been to Ukraine since the war started, but her son, brother and parents all spent the war back home near Kyiv. So she compulsively scans the news from Ukraine every day. “It’s hard to concentrate when you’re always worrying about your loved ones,” she conceded.
In a program note for the concert, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stressed that the orchestra’s tour should be considered part of the war effort. “Everyone is getting closer to victory in their part of the front: in the military, diplomatic, humanitarian, informational and, of course, cultural fields,” he wrote.
“The 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 Ukrainian-born Canadian conductor canceled her engagements in Moscow after the war began and began organizing a makeshift orchestra of Ukrainian musicians from around the world.
She asked Ukrainian friends to find the players among their friends and contacts, and hired her husband Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to provide the organizational muscle. In Warsaw, the Ministry of Culture agreed to fund a short residency for the hastily assembled orchestra to rehearse the program.
“Channeling all my energy and anger into what’s going on in the music has been fantastic,” Wilson says.
The orchestra gathered on July 18 in Warsaw to begin rehearsals, with more than 40 musicians arriving by bus from Ukraine. The male musicians received a special pass to leave the country for the duration of the tour, as Ukraine has a wartime law prohibiting males of military age from leaving.
Rehearsals began with many musicians exhausted after long journeys from Ukraine and the first day was interrupted by the need for the musicians to travel to the British Embassy to apply for visas for the London leg of the trip, the Britain being one of the only countries in Europe not to waive visas for Ukrainians.
“It was tough, the first rehearsal,” Wilson recalls. “But the progression from the first to the second rep was just amazing. They are professional musicians and you can see how dedicated they are to that.
The Warsaw audience accepted, giving the orchestra a long standing ovation as Monastyrska and Fedorova came out for an encore draped in Ukrainian flags.