“There is no way of knowing what will happen to musical life, or life in general, in Ukraine” – The Irish Times

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Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, performing at the National Concert Hall on Monday, August 15. It’s new. So new that he is about to give his very first concert, and his debut in Warsaw will be followed by a tour that will also take him to London, Munich, the Chorégies d’Orange festival in Provence, Berlin, Edinburgh, Snape Maltings (home of the Aldeburgh Festival), Amsterdam, Hamburg, New York and Washington DC.

The transatlantic stage is in fact a sort of homecoming. The orchestra is the brainchild of Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, one of whose grandmothers is Ukrainian (the other is Icelandic). Wilson is married to Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Following the Russian invasion last February, she raised with him the idea of ​​an international musical response to the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, and he immediately set about helping her make it happen.

Since Poland became home to so many Ukrainian refugees, they bonded with the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, home of the Polish National Opera. Other international partners include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture in Ukraine itself, as well as London’s leading arts management company, Askonas Holt, whose managing director, Donagh Collins, is Irish – he is a brother of pianist Finghin Collins. He said he hoped the concerts would “serve as an expression of defiance and resistance, providing moments to express hope for a better future”.

The musicians include refugees, high-level musicians from Ukrainian orchestras, musicians who have been drafted into the Ukrainian army but are on leave to participate in the project, and emigrant Ukrainian musicians from orchestras across the country. ‘Europe. The logistics of international orchestral tours are formidable at the best of times. But the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra tour is likely to set some kind of record, given how quickly it had to be planned, the health and world travel it was scheduled for, the unusual status of some of its members, and the complexity of the manifestos and diaries that will have to be filled out.

The repertoire, naturally enough, has a Ukrainian element. Along with works by Chopin, Beethoven and Dvorak, the orchestra performs the Irish premiere of the Seventh Symphony by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, who traveled to Ireland in 2009 to perform in a concert of portraits of his work presented by the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Drogheda.

Just two years ago, conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee wrote words about the symphony that are even more relevant today than they were then: “The Seventh Symphony is at the heart of everything which is memorable and deeply moving in Silvestrov’s lament for what we are in the midst of defeat. Personal loss; the loss of civilization.

The soloist for Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto is Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova, who made her much-delayed Irish debut at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in June – she was originally due to perform in 2020, then again in 2021, before finally settling down. go to Maison Bantry in 2022.

She is one of those people who have been immersed in music all her life. “I was born into a family of pianists. Both of my parents are musicians. They are both wonderful pianists and piano teachers. I have always been surrounded by music and started studying the piano as soon as it was possible to start teaching me.

His career path is a little out of the ordinary. She went to a specialized music school in her hometown, Kyiv, which allowed her to focus on music and allowed her what she calls “flexibility with regular subjects” when she had to perform in a competition or a concert, or needed more time to train. .

Then, she explains, “when I was 16, my career started. A Dutch manager who was visiting Ukraine came to the school and a few of us played for him. He liked my playing and invited me for my first concert in the Netherlands. You can feel the pride swell when she talks about making her debut in Amsterdam’s grand Concertgebouw at such a young age. And, although she continued to study, she has never looked back since.

She competed as a child, but very little thereafter. “I quit pretty early. Because it was impossible to reconcile the preparation of the competitions and the calendar of the competitions with my concert program. But she still has good things to say about the competitions in which she participated. “They still gave me something. I did not win all the competitions in which I participated. During some of them, I met people who would become important in my life. I met officials. I met promoters. I was asked to record a CD. Things like that, which are also very important.

She is based in the Netherlands, and it was there that she met her American husband, Nicholas Schwartz, double bass player of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. A career in Ukraine never seemed like a realistic option. She paints a less than rosy picture of artistic life. “I have to say that it’s not very easy, because music is very poorly funded in Ukraine. And obviously, there’s no way of knowing what will happen to musical life, or life in general, in Ukraine. When I was there, it was hard to imagine being an artist performing mainly in Ukraine and managing to survive there. Arts funding could be much, much better there.

On the other hand, she says, “There are great musicians there. There are [she corrects that to ‘were’] lots of gigs and big festivals, including those that have brought big international names. So, for example, she remembers her youth hearing Luciano Pavarotti in Kyiv and, after mentioning the cellist Natalia Gutman and the pianist Nikolai Lugansky, says that it was probably the Russian performers who were best represented.

Silvestrov, 84, who escaped at the start of the war and is now in Berlin, clearly has a special place in his musical affections. “He wrote wonderful piano sonatas,” she says, “lots of little pieces, and I now love performing one of his solo piano pieces called The Messenger. I very often play it as the last piece of a concert, either as an encore or as the last piece. It takes you to a completely different dimension, very peaceful, with hope and light – which is what everyone needs now.

She only met Silvestrov once, “when I was five, but my father knows him, worked with him and recorded his sonatas for Ukrainian radio. I remember when I was walking with my father, we met Silvestrov at a festival. But I was only five years old.

I ask him about life after the invasion. “It’s been a very, very difficult time since February. I guess what keeps me going and keeps me from going to a really dark place is the music. In the beginning, the first few days, we were all completely paralyzed. We couldn’t do anything, couldn’t think of anything. But then we decided that we had to do something, and we can really help, with musicians from back home, by organizing concerts for the benefit of the Ukraine. We have done many, many, with the help of many people who have been very supportive and enthusiastic, including at the Concertgebouw and The Hague. We have done it in a week. The tickets have been put in sale only three days before the concert, and within 30 hours they were all gone.

She is also setting up a music academy in The Hague with her husband. And, given the timing, “many students of my parents followed them to the Netherlands from Ukraine. They all needed housing, support, instruments, and they wanted to continue their musical education. We have organized lessons and concerts for them, and now they are invited to different festivals. And they also want to study at the new academy, so we have to collect many scholarships for them.

The big turning point this year for her was the resumption of music after the start of the war. “Afterwards, I felt like myself again, with some peace inside. Before that, I was in such a stressed state. My stomach hurt all the time. It was a feeling really terrible. Music kind of brought me back to life.

Anna Fedorova and the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra are at the National Concert Hall on Monday August 15. www.nch.ie

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