Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra: fighting a war with music

As the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra begins an international tour, Ken Walton meets the woman who made it happen

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra makes its EIF debut in 2022
The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra makes its EIF debut in 2022

“I was horrified at the war, and felt I could no longer sit and do nothing,” says Canadian-Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. She was no way alone in expressing her despair following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but she insisted on doing something about it. As of last week, her Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra was launched from its base in Warsaw, its weaponry music, its message one of pride, optimism and universal hope.

“It was no longer sufficient just to play the Ukrainian National Anthem in orchestral concerts,” adds the 55-year-old Winnipeg-born maestro, whose 20-year international career has taken her frequently to Eastern Europe, with strong links to the opera houses of Kiev, Warsaw and Moscow. She also has extended family in Ukraine.

As such, Wilson had witnessed first hand the impact of the war on Ukraine’s people and its cultural life. “At the start of the invasion, my friends in Kiev were hiding in their basements, with absolutely no social life, trying to survive day to day, never mind being able to play music together. Even as performances resumed, the theatres only allowed enough audience to fill a bomb shelter. It wasn’t back to normal by any means. As refugees flooded into Poland and elsewhere, I wanted to do something. The obvious thing was for me to create an orchestra.”

She didn’t hang about, bringing together some of the top musicians from Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odesa and elsewhere in the war-torn country, recent refugees among them, as well as Ukrainian players already working with other European ensembles. Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture granted military exemption to male musicians still living in the country, enabling them to participate.

The inaugural Warsaw concert, in the Grand Theatre of Polish National Opera on 28 July, marks the start of a month-long tour of Europe and North America during which the 74-strong orchestra will perform at the BBC Proms and, on Saturday 6 August, at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Personal connections helped with the nuts and bolts. Besides her own close association with Polish National Opera, Wilson is married to Peter Gelb, general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, who also appears at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival as a guest speaker. “Peter loved the idea. And since his institution was at the forefront of trying to do everything they could for Ukraine, he thought the Met could be a driving force behind funding this.

“Of course, we then had to think practically on how we assemble the musicians,” she adds. “Besides my own long-standing relationship with Polish Opera, Peter has done many new productions with them. He approached his Warsaw counterpart, Waldemar Dabrowski, who agreed this was a fantastic initiative.” The funds and venue arrangements were put in place, and the green light given.

“A two-pronged strategy was established,” says Wilson. “We would mould together and rehearse in Warsaw and have our first concert there; we would also go on tour, which would be our expression of solidarity, our ‘artistic defence’ for the freedom of Ukraine.” Concert agents Askonas Holt offered help with bookings. Besides securing UK dates in London, Edinburgh and Snape Maltings, the orchestra is now set to play in Germany, Holland and Dublin, prior to the tour finale in New York and Washington DC.

Equally important was a programme that amplified the humanitarian message. First on Wilson’s list was the Seventh Symphony by 84-year-old Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, written in 2003 in memory of his late wife. “It’s a beautiful work, full of heartfelt symbolism,” she says. For me it represents the emotional place we are at just now, this loss, the pangs of death. You can hear it in the silent sharp attacks at the start, then at the end, this serene, spiritual moment where the players just breathe into their instruments. It’s very special, very touching.”

On a more defiant note, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska sings Leonore’s aria Abscheulicher! from Beethoven’s political opera Fidelio. “With Polish Opera and the Met both involved, we had to have something operatic,” Wilson explains. “What better than an aria that is all about fighting tyranny and the triumph of hope and love.”

Another Ukrainian star, pianist Anna Fedorova, plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2, acknowledging the Polish connection. “We then finish with one of two symphonies - either Brahms Four or Dvorak’s New World - depending on what the host events wanted or had already programmed,” she explains.

Can such an orchestra really make a difference? The important thing is to do something, Wilson insists. “When we planned this orchestra, the mission was for musicians to put down their arms in the military, pick up their instruments and fight the war culturally. I don’t think this war is ending any time soon and I don’t think the support of the West can be allowed to die anytime soon. So it is even more relevant for our orchestra to show that we are resolved, not giving up our every effort to fight this war. Keeping it fresh in the media is going to be a major challenge for Ukraine. Fatigue is starting to set in. You see in Europe, in America, how the news is getting buried. That is devastating, because people are dying every day.”

What of Wilson’s colleagues in Russia? Has she stayed in touch? “That’s a sensitive subject,” she replies cautiously. “I have so many best friends in Moscow. Because they are being watched, controlled by the regime, they’re not free to speak out. The communication we have is mostly about how we miss each other, how we hope this will be over soon. Meanwhile, we have a mission to prove to Russia, to Vladimir Putin, that we will not live in fear, not sit by and let them take the freedom from this magnificent country. We are fighting for that and the future of Ukraine, and I think that’s a big weight.”

If accomplished, is it ‘mission over’ for the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra? “I would definitely hope there is a future for us. I can’t imagine, after this incredibly intense month of performing together and getting to know each other’s stories, never seeing these musicians again. The amount of tragedy going on in these players’ lives is too meaningful and emotional for them simply to go back to their orchestras and forget. Perhaps we could get together each summer?”

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, in collaboration with the Edinburgh International Festival and Scottish Government, performs a free concert (donations to the Scottish Refugee Council) at the Usher Hall, Saturday 6 August. Further information at www.eif.co.uk