“I don’t have a gun, but I have my cello,” a musician says as he joins the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which is made up of refugees who fled the war and artists who stayed behind.
Musicians from Ukraine shortly after they crossed the border into Poland, on their way to meet up with the musicians forming the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a new ensemble touring Europe and the United States to rally support for Ukraine. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
Aug. 14, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
WARSAW — After years of struggling to make a living as musicians in Ukraine, Yevgen Dovbysh and Anna Vikhrova felt they had finally built a stable life. They were husband-and-wife artists in the Odessa Philharmonic — he plays the cello, she the violin — sharing a love for Bach partitas and the music from “Star Wars.” They lived in an apartment on the banks of the Black Sea with their 8-year-old daughter, Daryna.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Vikhrova fled for the Czech Republic with her daughter and mother, bringing a few hundred dollars in savings, some clothes and her violin. Dovbysh, 39, who was not allowed to leave because he is of military age, stayed behind and assisted in efforts to defend the city, gathering sand from beaches to reinforce barriers and protect monuments and playing Ukrainian music on videos honoring the country’s soldiers.
“We spent every day together,” Vikhrova, 38, said. “We did everything together. And suddenly our beautiful life was taken away.”
Dovbysh was granted special permission to leave the country last month to join the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a new ensemble of 74 musicians that was gathering in Warsaw, the first stop on an international tour aimed at promoting Ukrainian culture and denouncing Russia’s invasion. Carrying his cello, and wearing a small golden cross around his neck, he boarded a bus for Poland, looking forward to playing for the cause, and also to being reunited with another member of the fledgling ensemble: his wife.
“I love my country so much,” he said as the bus passed ponds, churches and raspberry fields in Hrebenne, a Polish village near the border with Ukraine. “I don’t have a gun, but I have my cello.”
The bus crossed the border and drove into Hrebenne, in Poland, on its way to Warsaw, where the newly formed orchestra would meet for the first time to rehearse. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
When his bus arrived in Warsaw, he rushed to meet Vikhrova. He knocked on the door of her hotel room, waited nervously, and then embraced her when she opened it. She teased him about his decision to wear shorts for the 768-mile journey, despite the cool weather, a legacy of his upbringing in balmy Odessa. She gave him a figurine of a “Star Wars” creature, Baby Yoda, a belated birthday present.
“I’m so happy,” he said. “Finally, we are almost like a family again.”
The next morning, they took their chairs in the new Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, led by the Canadian Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, to prepare for an 12-city tour to rally support for Ukraine. Beginning here in Warsaw, the tour has continued in London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Berlin and other cities, and will travel to the United States this week to play at Lincoln Center on Aug. 18 and 19 and at the Kennedy Center in Washington on Aug. 20.
The tour has been organized with the support of the Ukrainian government. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, said in a recent statement celebrating the founding of the orchestra that “artistic resistance” to Russia was paramount. The orchestra also has the backing of powerful figures in the music industry. Wilson’s husband, Peter Gelb, who runs the Metropolitan Opera in New York, has played a critical role, helping line up engagements and benefactors, and the Met has helped arrange the tour. Waldemar Dabrowski, the director of the Wielki Theater, Warsaw’s opera house, provided rehearsal space and helped secure financial support from the Polish government.
CULTURE, DISPLACED A series exploring the lives and work of artists driven far from their homelands amid the growing global refugee crisis.
At the first rehearsal, musicians filed into the Wielki Theater carrying blue and yellow bags; instrument cases covered in peace signs and hearts; and tattered volumes of Ukrainian poems and hymns.
The orchestra was the idea of the Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who is of Ukrainian descent. “For Ukraine!” she proclaimed at the first rehearsal. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
As the musicians began to warm up at rehearsal, Wilson took her place at the podium, locked eyes with the players, and spoke about the need to stand up to Moscow.
“For Ukraine!” she said, throwing her fist into the air. Then the orchestra began playing Dvorak.
The musicians had arrived mostly as strangers to one another. But slowly they grew closer, sharing stories of neighborhoods pounded by bombs, while the refugees among them recounted their long, tense journeys across crowded borders this winter.
Among the violins was Iryna Solovei, a member of the orchestra at the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, who fled for Warsaw at the start of the invasion along with her 14-year-old daughter. Since March, they have been among the more than 30 Ukrainian refugees living inside the Wielki Theater, in offices that were converted to dormitories.
In March, Solovei, watched from a distance as her home in Kharkiv was destroyed by Russian missiles. She shared photos of her charred living room with her fellow players, telling them how much she missed Ukraine and worried about her husband, who still plays with the Kharkiv ensemble.
“Everyone has been hurt,” she said. “Some people have been hurt physically. Some people have lost their jobs. Some people have lost their homes.”
She reminisced about her days as an orchestra musician in Ukraine, and the deep connections she felt with audiences there. To cope with the trauma of war, she takes walks in a park in Warsaw, where a Ukrainian guitarist plays folk songs at sunset.
“The war is like a horrific dream,” she added. “We can forget about it for a moment, but we can never escape it.”
Iryna Solovei, left, holding a violin, before the orchestra’s first performance at the Wielki Theater in Warsaw. She has been living in the theater since March. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
At the back of the orchestra, in the percussion section, stood Yevhen Ulianov, a 33-year-old member of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine.
His daughter was born on Feb. 24, the first day of the invasion. He told his fellow players how he and his wife, a singer, had gone to the hospital in Kyiv a few hours before the war started. As she went into labor, air-raid sirens sounded repeatedly, and at one point they were rushed from the maternity ward to the basement of the hospital.
“I couldn’t understand what was happening,” he said. “I could only think, ‘How will we get out of here alive?’”
Ulianov did not play for two months after the invasion, as concerts in Kyiv were canceled and theaters elsewhere were damaged. The orchestra reduced his salary by a third in April, and he relied on savings to pay his bills. Inside his apartment near the center of the city, he practiced on a vibraphone, taking shelter in a corridor when air-raid sirens sounded.
“We didn’t know what to do — should we stay or should we leave?” he said. “What if the Russian army came to Kyiv? Would we ever be able to play again?”
‘Half of me is in Ukraine, and half of me is outside.’
Before the orchestra’s first concert, late last month in Warsaw, Vikhrova and Dovbysh were anxious.
They had spent more than a week rehearsing the program, which included pieces by Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s most famous living composer. But they were unsure how the audience might react. And they were grappling with their fears about the war.
Vikhrova had been trying to build a new life in the Czech Republic with their daughter, joining a local orchestra. But she worried about her husband’s safety “every second, every minute, every hour,” she said. She slept near her phone so that she would be woken up by warnings about air raids in Odessa. She grew anxious after one attack there before Easter, when her husband saw Russian missiles in the sky but had no time to take shelter. To take her mind off the war, she played Bach and traditional Ukrainian songs.
On their first evening together in five months, Yevgen Dovbysh and Anna Vikhrova, a married couple who were parted by the war and reunited to play together in the orchestra, attended a welcoming party for the new ensemble at Warsaw’s opera house, the Wielki Theater. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
Holding her husband’s hand backstage, Vikhrova said she longed for the day when they could return to Ukraine with their daughter, who was staying with her mother in the Czech Republic for the duration of the tour.
“I feel like I’m leading a double life,” she said. “Half of me is in Ukraine, and half of me is outside.”
Dovbysh remembered the fear in his daughter’s eyes when she and her mother left Odessa in February. He recalled taking time to explain the war and telling her she would be safe. He promised they would see each other again soon.
When the tour ends this week and his military exemption expires, he is scheduled to return to Odessa. It is unclear when he will be able to see his family again.
“Every day,” he said, “I dream of the moment when we can see each other again.”
‘We live with a constant sense of worry.’
As the war drags on, the musicians have at times struggled to keep their focus. They spend much of their free time checking their phones for news of Russian attacks, sending warnings to relatives.
Marko Komonko, 46, the orchestra’s concertmaster, said it was agonizing to watch the war from a distance, likening the experience to a parent caring for an ill child. He fled Ukraine in March for Sweden, where he now plays in the orchestra at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm.
“We live with a constant sense of worry,” he said.
“We live with a constant sense of worry,” said Marko Komonko, the concert master, far right. Komonko, who now plays at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, was joined at a rehearsal by Ustym Zhuk, who plays the viola, far left, and Adrian Bodnar a violinist, center. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
For more than two months after the invasion, he said, he felt nothing when he played his violin. Then, in early May, he began to feel a mix of sadness and hope when he performed a Ukrainian folk melody at a concert in Stockholm.
For some, playing in the orchestra has strengthened a sense of Ukrainian identity. Alisa Kuznetsova, 30, was in Russia when the war began; since 2019, she had worked as a violinist in the Mariinsky Orchestra. In late March, she resigned from the orchestra in protest and moved to Tallinn, Estonia, where she began playing in the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.
When she joined the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, she initially felt guilty, she said, worried that the other players would see her as a traitor because of her work in Russia. But she said her colleagues had reassured her that she was welcome.
“For my soul, for my heart,” she said, “this has been really important.”
In European cultural capitals, the orchestra has been greeted with standing ovations and positive reviews from critics.
“A stirring show of Ukrainian defiance,” a review in The Daily Telegraph said of the orchestra’s performance at the Proms, the BBC’s classical music festival. The Guardian wrote of “tears and roars of delight” for the new ensemble.
The players got a standing ovation, their first of many on the tour, at their first performance in Warsaw. Credit: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
But the musicians say the measure of success will not be reviews, but their ability to shine a light on Ukraine and showcase a cultural identity that Russia has tried to erase.
Nazarii Stets, 31, a double bass player from Kyiv, has been redoubling his efforts to build a digital library of scores by Ukrainian composers, so their music can be widely downloaded and performed. He plays in the Kyiv Kamerata, a national ensemble devoted to contemporary Ukrainian music.
“If we are not fighting for culture,” he said, “then what is the point of fighting?”
Wilson, who came up with the idea for the orchestra in March and plans to revive it next summer, said she made a point of featuring Silvestrov’s symphony as a way of promoting Ukrainian culture. Near the end of the piece, the composer wrote a series of breathing sounds for the brass, an effect meant to mimic the last breaths of his wife.
Wilson, who dedicated the piece to Ukrainians killed in the war, said she instructed the orchestra to think of the sounds not as death, but as life.
“It’s the breath of life, to show that their spirits go on,” she said in an interview.
Vikhrova said the tour had brought her closer to her husband and her fellow players. She cries after each performance of the Silvestrov symphony, and when the orchestra plays an arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem as an encore.
“This has connected our hearts,” she said. “We feel part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Anna Tsybko contributed reporting.
A series exploring the lives and work of artists driven far from their homelands amid the growing global refugee crisis.
Javier C. Hernández is a Culture reporter for The New York Times covering the world of classical music and dance in New York City and beyond. He joined The Times in 2008 and previously worked as a correspondent in Beijing and New York. @HernandezJavier