Ukraine’s musical frontline


“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”. The words of Victor Hugo ring truer now than ever before. As a universal language, music epitomises art’s ability to triumph over adversity and serves to help people battle through conflict peacefully. The defence of Ukraine’s cultural legacy by Ukrainian musicians is testimony to the value accorded to music during wartime.

At the forefront of musical resistance against Russian aggression is the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra

The orchestra formed in July 2022, comprised of refugees, Ukrainian musicians from European orchestras, including Belgium National Orchestra and Tonkunstler Orchestra of Vienna, and musicians from within Ukraine.

The activities of the orchestra are of national importance. The Ukrainian government have granted special dispensation to the male members of the orchestra, allowing them to leave the country to tour with the orchestra instead of serving in the military. The orchestra have also been endorsed by the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska. In the summer of 2023, Zelenska commented, “the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra is the musical voice of Ukraine. Universal and understandable without translation, music is a language we can use to speak to the world…music will speak to silence aggression”.

Since its inception, the orchestra have embarked on two tours. The first was a European and American tour which commenced in July 2022 in collaboration with The Polish National Opera (PNO) and the New York Metropolitan Opera. These organisations have stood in solidarity with Ukraine, taking in refugees and holding benefit concerts to raise funds for Ukrainian musicians. In a joint statement, the Met’s Manager and the PNO’s director commented, “music can be a powerful weapon against oppression. This tour is meant to defend Ukrainian art and its brave artists as they fight for the freedom of their country”.

The performance programme consisted of works by the classics – Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms. However, the highlight of the programme was Valentin Silvestrov’s Seventh Symphony. Silvestrov is a living Ukrainian composer who has acquired refugee status since the crisis, like millions of Ukrainians. His Seventh Symphony is tender and nostalgic, evoking a sorrowful sense of loss with expressive and mournful harmonies.

Silvestrov’s solemn works have gained international acclaim since the crisis. One of his recent works is a short piano piece which documents his escape from Ukraine to Berlin. Silvestrov has commented on the meaning of the piece, explaining that the melody is reflective of the endless crowds of refugees he witnessed desperately trying to cross the Polish border.

The August/September 2023 tour continued to put Ukrainian artistry on the map, with stops including Berlin, Warsaw, Lucerne, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and London. The tour began at the Polish National Opera with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Ode to Joy sung in Ukrainian and featuring Ukrainian soloists Olga Kulchynska, Nicole Chira, Dmytro Popov, and Vladyslav Buialskyi. The remainder of the tour celebrated works by another two Ukrainian composers, Yevhen Stankovych’s Second Violin Concerto, and an orchestral piece entitled Melody by Myroslav Skoryk.

Prior to the 2023 tour, founding conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson, expressed her pride in the orchestra and its musicians.

“’I’m proud to join the brave musicians of the orchestra once again as we defend Ukraine’s cultural legacy…we will not rest until the war is won”

The Freedom Orchestra have succeeded in showcasing Ukrainian artistry in the West and defending Ukraine’s cultural legacy. The two tours have received an unprecedented amount of media coverage for such a newly formed orchestra. The orchestra have been featured in a BBC Documentary, as well as on television by CNN, NBC Nightly News, and the BBC. International newspapers are also united in their support for the orchestra. Headlines read, “Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra review – tears and roars of delight for new national ensemble” (The Guardian), “A defiant orchestra of Ukrainian artists hopes Putin can hear them” (The Washington Post), “Denouncing war, Ukrainian musicians unite for a world tour” (The New York Times).

Illustration: Zahra Haroon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.