WARSAW After years of trying to make a living as musicians in Ukraine, Yevgen Dovbysh and Anna Vikhrova thought they had finally built a stable life. They were husband and wife artists in the Odessa Philharmonic, he playing the cello, she the violin, who shared a love of Bach partitas and music from Star Wars. They lived in an apartment on the shores of the Black Sea with their 8-year-old daughter, Daryna.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Vikhrova fled to the Czech Republic with her daughter and mother, bringing several hundred dollars in savings, some clothes and her violin. Dovbysh, 39, who was not allowed to leave because he was of military age, stayed behind and helped with efforts to defend the city, collecting sand from beaches to reinforce barriers and protect monuments and playing Ukrainian music in video honoring the country’s soldiers.
We spent every day together, said Vikhrova, 38. 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 Freedom Orchestra of Ukraine, a new ensemble of 74 musicians gathering in Warsaw, the first stop on an international tour aimed at to promote Ukrainian culture and denounce Russian occupation. Carrying his cello and wearing a small golden cross around his neck, he boarded a bus to Poland, looking forward to playing for the cause and also reuniting with another member of the new ensemble: his wife .
I love my country very 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.
When his bus arrived in Warsaw, he hurried to meet Vikhrova. He knocked on her hotel room door, waited nervously, then hugged 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 laid-back Odessa. She gave him a figurine of a Star Wars creature, Baby Yoda, as a belated birthday present.
I am very happy, he said. Finally, we are almost like a family again.
The next morning, they took their seats in the new Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, led by Ukrainian-Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, to prepare for a 12-city tour to rally support for Ukraine. Starting here in Warsaw, the tour has continued to London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Berlin and other cities, and will travel to the United States this week to play Lincoln Center on August 18 and 19 and the Kennedy Center in Washington on August. 20.
The tournament is organized with the support of the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent statement celebrating the orchestra’s founding that artistic resistance to Russia was paramount. The orchestra also has the support of powerful figures in the music industry. The Wilsons’ 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 organize the tour. Waldemar Dabrowski, the director of Teatri Wielki, Warsaw’s opera house, provided the rehearsal space and helped secure financial support from the Polish government.
CULTURE, DISPLACED A series exploring the lives and work of artists uprooted amid the growing global refugee crisis.
In the first rehearsal, the musicians entered the Wielki Theater carrying blue and yellow bags; instrument boxes covered in peace signs and hearts; and tattered volumes of Ukrainian poetry and hymns.
As the musicians began to warm up for 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 in the air. Then the orchestra began to play Dvorak.
The musicians had come mostly as strangers to each other. But slowly they grew closer, sharing stories of bombed-out neighborhoods as the refugees among them recounted their long, tense journeys across crowded borders this winter.
Among the violinists was Iryna Solovei, a member of the orchestra at the Kharkiv State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, who left for Warsaw at the beginning of the occupation along with her 14-year-old daughter. Since March, they have been among more than 30 Ukrainian refugees living inside Teatr Wielki, in offices that have been converted into dormitories.
In March, Solovei watched from a distance as her home in Kharkiv was destroyed by Russian rockets. She shared photos of her burning living room with her colleagues, telling them how much she missed Ukraine and worried about her husband, who still plays with the Kharkiv ensemble.
Our coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
Everyone is hurt, she said. Some people were physically hurt. Some people have lost their jobs. Some people have lost their homes.
She recalled her days as an orchestral musician in Ukraine and the deep connections she felt with audiences there. To cope with the trauma of the war, she takes walks in a park in Warsaw, where a Ukrainian guitarist plays folk songs at sunset.
War is like a terrible dream, she added. We can forget it for a moment, but we can never escape it.
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 February 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 Kiev a few hours before the start of the war. As she went into labour, air raid sirens blared repeatedly and at one point they were rushed from the maternity ward to the hospital basement.
I couldn’t understand what was going on, he said. I could only think, how are we going to get out of here alive?
Ulyanov did not play for two months after the invasion, as concerts in Kiev were canceled and theaters elsewhere were damaged. The orchestra cut his salary by a third in April and he relied on savings to pay the bills. Inside his apartment near the city center, he practiced with a vibraphone, taking cover in a hallway when air raid sirens sounded.
We didn’t know what to do, should we stay or leave? he said. What if the Russian army came to Kiev? Would we be able to play again?
My half is in Ukraine, and my half is abroad.
Before the orchestra’s first concert at the end of 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 weren’t sure how the audience might react. And they were facing their fears about war.
Vikhrova had tried 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 next to her phone so she would wake up to air raid warnings in Odessa. She became concerned after an 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.
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. My half is in Ukraine, and my half is abroad.
Dovbysh recalled the fear in his daughters’ eyes when she and her mother left Odessa in February. He remembered taking the time to explain the fight and telling her she would be safe. He promised that 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 unease.
As the war drags on, the musicians have sometimes struggled to maintain their focus. They spend most 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 difficult to watch the war from a distance, likening the experience to a parent caring for a sick child. He left 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 unease, he said.
For more than two months after the invasion, he said, he felt nothing when he played the violin. Then, in early May, he began to feel a mixture of sadness and hope when he performed a Ukrainian folk tune at a concert in Stockholm.
For some, playing in the orchestra has strengthened their sense of Ukrainian identity. Alisa Kuznetsova, 30, was in Russia when the war began; as of 2019, she had been working 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 assured her she was welcome.
For my soul, for my heart, she said, this has been very important.
In European cultural capitals, the orchestra has been received with ovations and positive reviews from critics.
A stirring display of Ukrainian defiance, said a review in The Daily Telegraph of the orchestras’ performance at the Proms, the BBC’s classical music festival. The Guardian wrote about tears and screams of joy for the new ensemble.
But the musicians say the measure of success will not be the accolades, 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 Kiev, has redoubled his efforts to build a digital library of scores by Ukrainian composers so that their music can be widely downloaded and performed. He plays in Kyiv Kamerata, a national ensemble dedicated 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 decided to perform Silvestrov’s symphony as a way to promote Ukrainian culture. Near the end of the piece, the composer wrote a series of breath sounds for the brass, an effect intended to mimic his wife’s last breaths.
Wilson, who dedicated the work to Ukrainians killed in the war, said she instructed the orchestra to think of sounds not as death but as life.
It is the breath of life, to show that their spirits continue, she said in an interview.
Vikhrova said the tournament had brought her closer to her husband and fellow players. She cries after every performance of Silvestrov’s 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.
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