An Orchestra Supports Ukraine, and Reunites a Couple Parted by War

WARSAW — After years of struggling to make a living as musicians in Ukraine, Yevgen Dovbysh and Anna Vikhrova finally feel they have found a stable life. They were an artist couple from the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra. He played the cello and she played the violin, sharing their love of Bach’s Partita and Star Wars music. They lived with their eight-year-old daughter Darina in an apartment on the shores of the Black Sea.

Then, in February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Vikroix fled with his daughter and mother to the Czech Republic, taking with them hundreds of dollars in savings, clothes, and a violin. The 39-year-old Dovbysh, who was not allowed to leave because of military age, remained behind and supported efforts to defend the city, strengthening barriers and clearing sand from beaches to protect monuments. Gathered and played Ukrainian music. video Honor the soldiers of the country.

“We spent every day together,” said 38-year-old Vikhrova. “We did everything together, and suddenly our beautiful lives were taken away.”

Dovbisch was given special permission to leave the country last month to join a new 74-musician ensemble, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, in Warsaw. So he boarded a bus to Poland, looking forward to performing for the cause and reuniting with his wife, another member of the fledgling ensemble.

“I love my country very much,” he said as the bus passed Hröbene ponds, churches and raspberry fields, a Polish village near the Ukrainian border. “I don’t have a gun, but I have a cello.”

When the bus arrived in Warsaw, he rushed to see Vikroix. He knocked on her hotel room door, waited nervously, and hugged her as she opened the door. She teased him about his decision to wear shorts for the 768-mile journey, despite the cool weather that was his legacy growing up in mild Odessa. gave a figurine of the “Star Wars” creature, Baby Yoda.

“I am very happy,” he said. “Finally, we’re like family again.”

The next morning, they sat in the chairs of the new Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, led by Ukrainian Canadian conductor Kerilyn Wilson, to prepare for a 12-city tour to rally support for Ukraine. Starting here in Warsaw, the tour continues in London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Berlin and other cities before heading to the United States this week, at the Lincoln Center on August 18th and He on the 19th, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington in August. to play. 20.

This tour was organized with the support of the Government of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent statement celebrating the orchestra’s founding that “artistic resistance” to Russia is paramount. The orchestra also has the endorsement of powerful figures in the music industry. Wilson’s husband, Peter Gelb, who runs New York’s Metropolitan Opera, played a key role, helping her arrange contracts and sponsorships, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art helping arrange tours. Waldemar Dabrowski, director of the Warsaw opera house Wielki Theater, provided rehearsal space and helped secure financial support from the Polish government.

culture, refugees A series that explores the lives and works of artists far from home amid the growing global refugee crisis.

At the first rehearsal, the musicians lined up at the Wielki Theater with blue and yellow bags. A musical instrument case covered with a peace sign and a heart. Shabby Ukrainian poems and hymns.

As the musicians warmed up in rehearsals, Wilson climbed onto the podium, made eye contact with the players, and spoke about the need to face Moscow.

“For Ukraine!” she said, throwing her fist into the air. The orchestra then started playing Dvorak.

The musicians mostly arrived as strangers to each other. But slowly they got to know each other, sharing stories of bombed areas and refugees among them recounting the long and stressful journey across the crowded border this winter.

Among the violins was Irina Solovey, a member of the orchestra of the Kharkov State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, who fled with her 14-year-old daughter to Warsaw at the start of the invasion. Since March, they are one of more than 30 Ukrainian refugees living in an office converted into a dormitory inside the Wielki Theater.

In March, Solovey watched from afar as his home in Kharkov was destroyed by Russian missiles. She shared a photo of her burnt living room with her fellow players, saying she misses Ukraine and worries about her husband, who is still performing in the Kharkov ensemble. I was.

“Everyone was hurt,” she said. “Some people have physical injuries. Some have lost their jobs. Some have lost their homes.”

She recalled her days as an orchestral player in Ukraine and the deep connection she felt with the audience there. To cope with her war trauma, she takes walks in Warsaw’s parks. In that park, a Ukrainian guitarist plays folk songs at dusk.

“War is like a scary dream,” she added. “You can forget for a moment, but you can never escape.”

In the percussion section behind the orchestra stood Yevhen Ulianov, a 33-year-old member of the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra.

His daughter was born on February 24, the first day of the invasion. He told his fellow athletes that he and his singer’s wife had gone to a hospital in Kyiv hours before the start of the war. When labor began, an air raid alarm sounded, and at one point I rushed from the maternity ward to the basement of the hospital.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said. “I could only think, ‘How am I going to get out of here alive?'”

Ulyanov did not perform for two months after the invasion, as concerts in Kyiv were canceled and theaters elsewhere were damaged. The orchestra cut his salary by a third in April and he relied on savings for his living expenses. He practiced his vibraphone in an apartment near the city center and took refuge in a hallway as 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 comes to Kyiv? Will we ever be able to play again?”

Before the orchestra’s first concert in Warsaw late last month, Viklova and Dovbis were feeling uneasy.

They spent more than a week rehearsing the program, which included works by Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and one of Ukraine’s most famous living composers, Valentin Silvestrov. However, I had no idea how the audience would react. And they were fighting the fear of war.

Vikhrova was trying to build a new life in the Czech Republic with her daughter by joining a local orchestra. But she worried about her husband’s safety “every second, minute, hour.”She slept near her mobile phone as she was awakened by warnings about air raids in Odessa. She became alarmed after being hit once there before Easter when her husband saw Russian missiles in the sky but didn’t have time to evacuate. To forget the war, she performed Bach and traditional Ukrainian songs.

Holding her husband’s hand in the dressing room, Vikrova said she longed to return to Ukraine with her daughter.

“I feel like I’m living a double life,” she said. “Half of me is in Ukraine, half of me is outside.”

Dovbysh recalled seeing fear in her daughter’s eyes when she and her mother left Odessa in February. He recalled taking her time to explain her war and telling her she was safe. He promised to meet again soon.

He plans to return to Odessa when his tour ends this week and his exemption from military service expires. It is unknown when he will be able to meet his family.

“Every day, I dream of the moment we meet again.”

As the war dragged on, musicians sometimes struggled to stay focused. They spend much of their free time checking news of Russian attacks on their cell phones and sending warnings to relatives.

Marco Komonko, 46, the orchestra’s concertmaster, said watching the war from afar was painful and likened the experience to a parent caring for a sick child. to Sweden and now plays in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House in Stockholm.

“We live in constant anxiety,” he said.

He said that more than two months after the invasion, he felt nothing when he played the violin. Then, in early May, when he performed Ukrainian folk melodies at a concert in Stockholm, he began to feel a mixture of sadness and hope.

For some, playing in an orchestra bolstered their sense of Ukrainian identity. Alisa Kuznetsova, 30, was in Russia when the war started. Since 2019, she has been active as a violinist with the Mariinsky Orchestra. In late March she resigned from the orchestra in protest and she moved to Tallinn, Estonia, where she began her performances with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.

She said she felt guilty at first when she joined the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.

“For my soul, for my heart, this was really important,” she said.

In European capitals of culture, the orchestra was greeted with standing ovations and positive reviews from critics.

A review in the Daily Telegraph described the orchestra’s performance at the BBC’s classical music festival, the Proms, as “a show of Ukrainian rebellion”. The Guardian wrote:tears of joy and roars” for the new ensemble.

But the musicians say their measure of success isn’t reviews, but their ability to shine a light on Ukraine and showcase the cultural identity Russia is trying to erase.

Kyiv-born double-bassist Nazariy Stetz, 31, is redoubled efforts to build a digital library of sheet music by Ukrainian composers, making their music widely available for download and performance. He plays with the Kyiv Camerata, a national ensemble dedicated to contemporary Ukrainian music.

“What’s the point in fighting if we’re not fighting for culture?” he said.

Wilson, who came up with the idea for the orchestra in March and plans to revive it next summer, emphasized taking up Silvestrov’s symphony as a way to promote Ukrainian culture. I wrote a series of breath sounds. This is an effect intended to mimic his wife’s last breath.

Wilson, who dedicated the song to Ukrainians killed in the war, said he instructed the orchestra to think of sound as life, not death.

“It’s the breath of life that shows their spirit continues,” she said in an interview.

Viklova said the tour brought her closer to her husband and other players. Every time she plays Silvestrov’s symphony, and every time the orchestra plays an arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem as an encore, she cries.

“This brought our hearts together,” she said. “We feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Anna Tsybko contributed reporting.

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