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A defiant orchestra of Ukrainian artists hopes Putin can hear them

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Early in the morning on Feb. 24, Ukrainian violist Kateryna Suprun and her 2-year-old daughter were startled awake in their beds by a massive explosion. Sirens started to wail in the streets as Russian missiles rained on downtown Kyiv.

Like many of her friends and neighbors, Suprun never believed this could actually happen; but within hours, she was among tens of thousands of Kyiv residents grabbing what they could and evacuating the city. Suprun, her daughter and their two cats navigated traffic jams and panicked crowds during a harrowing four-day drive to the Polish border, where locals supplied them with food and water.

“I will remember for the rest of my life the moment when we crossed the border,” Suprun, 31, tells me in an email (translated from Ukrainian), “because I didn’t know if I would ever return, [if] I would see my family, and whether my beautiful country would exist.”

Suprun is among an estimated 5 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled their home country; another 7 million remain in Ukraine, but displaced from their homes. Now, nearly six months after the first strike on Kyiv, Suprun is one of 74 musicians banded together and touring the world as the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.

The orchestra, conceived and led by the Canadian Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, is made up entirely of Ukrainian refugees, Ukrainian members of European orchestras and musicians representing the Kyiv National Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra, Kharkiv Opera and other Ukrainian ensembles.

Formed through a collaboration between the Metropolitan Opera (Wilson’s husband is Met General Manager Peter Gelb) and the Polish National Opera, the orchestra coalesced quickly around a mission to stage, as the Met news release put it, “artistic defense” of its homeland. Its debut concerts across Western Europe and Britain have been met with rave reviews and long ovations. (The BBC recently released a stream of the orchestra’s Proms performance at Royal Albert Hall.)

Following a pair of shows at Lincoln Center on Aug. 18 and 19, the tour culminates at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 20.

For Wilson, 55, the project is deeply personal. One of her cousins, originally from the southwestern Ukraine city of Chernivtsi, went to the front lines in Donbas at the start of the invasion and is still there. His sister is a volunteer, driving trucks with medical supplies, and Wilson sometimes sends her supplies she can’t find — goggles, camo gloves, protective vests.

Wilson’s great-grandparents emigrated from Chernivtsi to Winnipeg, part of a massive diaspora of Ukrainians to Canada through the first few decades of the early 20th century. But when she refers to Ukraine as a “second home,” she clarifies that “home” includes Russia.

She remembers fondly being embraced as a Ukrainian artist when she would visit Russia to conduct at the Bolshoi Theatre, which she considers her artistic home.

“The irony is just sickening,” she says on the phone from a tour stop in Edinburgh, Scotland. “It really is like one nation.”

When the invasion started, Wilson felt shock, horror and a desperation to find a way to contribute — or at least unleash some of the anguish she felt watching the images play out on television. At the time she was on a blur of a tour for a solid month, guest conducting four different orchestras in four different countries — leading them each in programs of largely Russian composers.

At a March concert in Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, with the Gran Canaria Philharmonic, she added the Ukrainian national anthem to a program of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and gave a short speech (in Spanish). She did the same at every subsequent date.

“A year ago I never thought we’d be playing Russian repertoire in this climate,” she recalls telling the audience. “But we were playing Tchaikovsky for ourselves. This was at the time that they started canceling Tchaikovsky around Europe. So it was delicate, but I felt very, very strongly that we had to separate clearly: What is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and what is Russia?”

Classical music is seldom the first responder in a crisis. On the whole, it’s a slow-moving machine with many moving parts, much of them rusted over with institutional inertia. But in cities across Ukraine, Russian aggression was met almost instantly (and seemingly instinctually) with salvos of artistic resistance, as orchestras, ensembles and individual musicians staged defiant public performances in city squares, apartments and subway stations.

Music as resistance: Kyiv’s orchestra plays on

This spirit seems to live within Wilson as well. Her third week of that European tour was supposed to feature a run with the Odessa Philharmonic, many of whose members were forced to flee.

The subsequent week off found Wilson flying to London, meeting up with Gelb, and wondering what she could do — fly to Warsaw and volunteer? Hand out food and blankets? She felt helpless watching footage of millions of refugees flowing into Warsaw, and wondered how many of them were musicians.

Surely enough to form an orchestra?

Wilson had accidentally hatched a plan that would consume the rest of her summer. Before Gelb reached the airport for his flight home, he’d contacted his counterpart at the Polish National Opera, Waldemar Dabrowski, in an effort to join forces. Dabrowski was already hosting refugees at his home, including a musician from Kharkiv and her daughter, camped out in one of their dressing rooms.

Dabrowski immediately signed on and within days the three had enlisted the help of prestigious London-based concert agency Askonas Holt, which swiftly squeezed the orchestra into spots at a string of summer festivals across Europe — most of which are typically booked years in advance.

To assemble the orchestra itself, Wilson flew to Warsaw and met with Dabrowski’s team, administrators and musicians who within 48 hours produced a list of Ukrainian musicians eager to join the orchestra. Nearly a third would come from the orchestra in Lviv, the rest would be performing with each other for the first time.

(In Ukraine, while there’s no conscripted service for eligible men between ages 18 and 60, they are largely forbidden from leaving the country. Several male musicians received special dispensations to perform, with support from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. One was called into service before the tour began.)

The cultural ministries of Poland and Ukraine granted funds for the orchestra to use the Polish National Opera’s Teatr Wielki, and rehearsals commenced. Ten days later, the orchestra played its inaugural concert in Warsaw — a gesture akin to a rush to the front lines.

“I also wanted to fight. I would have no qualms taking up a weapon, but I took up a baton,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s program is a finely tuned plea for peace, but also an assertive stand for the strength and creative force of Ukrainian culture.

She opens with the intensely beautiful seventh symphony by the esteemed Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. At 84, he also fled Kyiv at the start of the invasion and now lives in Berlin.

The haunting 17-minute work was completed in 2003 as a memorial to Silvestrov’s wife, musicologist Larissa Bondarenko, who died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 50. Wilson was drawn to its elegiac potential as an expression of grief for Ukrainian soldiers lost in battle. In its closing moments, breaths pass unsounded through brass instruments, lightly resonating through their forms. Wilson thinks of them as the sound of “the breath of life, the soul living on.”

“It was hard to hold back tears in certain places,” Wilson recalls of rehearsing the Silvestrov. “Of course, I did. I had to. As a conductor, you can’t let your emotions show too much.”

In addition to the Silvestrov, Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova will join the orchestra to perform Chopin’s second piano concerto, which was first performed by the composer in Warsaw in 1830.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska will sing “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” from Beethoven’s “Fidelio” — an aria that finds Leonora recoiling in horror at the monstrous cruelty and “wildem Grimme” (i.e. wild rage) of Pizarro the jailer, only to resolve, beautifully and inevitably, to find strength in love.

The program concludes with Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, No. 9 and an encore Wilson says has broken the hearts of every audience who has heard it.

It’s so easy, especially an ocean away, to think of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra as another manifestation of our compulsion to equate art with often inert expressions of “hope” and “humanity” and answer horror with beauty. A pandemic’s worth of performing arts defined by consciously summoned optimism has perhaps dulled our faith in art as more than mere salve.

For Wilson, it’s a weapon. The orchestra is an operation. And the musicians are soldiers. Nobody complains, she says. They smile. They hug. They play. They know what they’re doing.

“This is not just about music making. We are on a mission to fight,” she says. “Every day, Putin is trying to silence Ukraine in every way: bombing them, saying that they don’t have any culture, that they don’t have any tradition. He’s lying! When I saw everybody living in fear in their basements, not having the freedom to make music, it was just atrocious to me. This [concert] is a way of saying, ‘You will not win, because culture is the soul of Ukraine.’ ”

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 20 at 8 p.m.

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