All-Ukrainian orchestra brings country musicians to the world stage
Ukrainian musician Kateryna Suprun knew she had to leave her home in kyiv as soon as Russia invaded her country in late February.
She packed her viola and her 2-year-old daughter into a car and fled to Berlin. She left behind her life as a successful concert performer and said goodbye to her husband, who stayed on to fight.
Ms. Suprun has since found her own way to help her country.
She is one of 75 musicians joining the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a unique collaboration between the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the Polish National Opera to raise funds for Ukrainian artists.
The group will include refugees like Ms. Suprun, as well as Ukrainian musicians playing in European orchestras and in orchestras in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odessa and elsewhere in Ukraine. They will meet in Poland for 10 days of intensive rehearsals of a selection of classical works in July before going on tour in several countries.
The usual timeframe for organizing an international tour of such a standard is two to three years, according to Peter Gelb, chief executive of the Met. This one was hammered in about four or five weeks.
“We made many phone calls to city authorities in Europe, concert presenters and music festivals, and very quickly organized a tour,” he said.
Mr. Gelb said the idea for the orchestra came from his wife, Ukrainian-Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson.
Ms Wilson will now be responsible for forming 75 musicians who have never played together as an orchestra into a cohesive, world-class ensemble before the tour debuts on July 28.
Nazar Stets hopes to be among them.
The 30-year-old bassist is currently unable to leave Ukraine under the country’s travel ban on males of military age, aged between 18 and 60. To bring him and other musicians in the same situation to Poland, Mr. Gelb is working with Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get the country’s Ministry of Defense to allow exceptions to the ban.
As Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, Mr Stets only had time to collect his cat, Bella, and his passport from his home in kyiv before heading to his parents’ home in the Ternopil region, in western Ukraine. His instrument, already installed in a kyiv music hall for a planned solo recital, had to be abandoned.
For a month, Mr. Stets used his fingers to practice scales on the double bass at his parents’ house until a friend could bring the bow from his apartment.
The chance to join the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra brings more than the usual perks for Mr. Stets. It would also allow him to finally see his wife, Nataliia Stets.
Ms Stets, a conductor who was performing in Italy when the war broke out, now lives in Germany, he said. With daily air raids even in her parents’ small town, it is not safe enough for her to return, he said.
He has big plans for their July reunion, although he is aware that his leave could be cancelled.
“I hope [not]. But you know the situation,” Mr Stets said.
Since fleeing Kyiv more than two months ago, Ms Suprun has found work in Berlin playing the viola. She is unsure whether her visit to Poland will include a reunion with her husband, Paul Manandise, a popular singer born in Brussels but living in Ukraine since 2015.
Mr Manandise, as a foreigner, could have left with her and their daughter Mia in February, she said. “But he stayed in Ukraine. I am proud of his act and of course I am very worried for him,” she said.
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Violinist Julia Tokach also chose to stay in Ukraine when war broke out. She still practices her instrument daily at her Lviv apartment, but all of her planned bookings have been cancelled, she said.
“I’m so grateful to the Met and all the organizations that put on this tour,” she said. “I am very happy to know that we have support from them.”
The tour not only provides an opportunity to once again perform on the world stage, but also to showcase the beauty of Ukrainian art, Ms. Tokach said.
The orchestra’s program will include Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Seventh Symphony and Ukrainian virtuoso Anna Fedorova performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Principal Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska will perform “Abscheulicher! of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”.
Ms Monastyrska is currently appearing in ‘Turandot’ at the Met – a role she was tapped for after the company dropped Russian singer Anna Netrebko for her past support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Saturday evening, Ms Monastyrska took her curtain call draped in the Ukrainian flag.
After its opening night at the Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera in Warsaw, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra will travel through Europe and the United Kingdom. The orchestra will perform twice at Lincoln Center in New York in August. Their final performance will be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on August 20, according to the Met.
All proceeds will go to supporting Ukrainian artists, Gelb said.
Ukrainian violinist Marko Komonko, 46, will serve as the tour’s principal violin conductor, after the conductor in authority.
When he decided in March that it was no longer safe in Lviv, Mr Komonko loaded his family into a car with four violins and drove to Poland. A violin was for him, to make a living wherever they landed, and one for each of his sons, so they wouldn’t forget how to play, he said.
Mr. Komonko has settled in Stockholm for the time being with his wife and boys. He performs with the Royal Swedish Opera. Her children attend the Ukrainian school online.
He doesn’t know when his family will be able to return home, but he’s looking forward to reuniting with old friends and meeting new musicians as he helps build an orchestra in just 10 days.
“They are all Ukrainians. They will listen to me,” Mr. Komonko said.
Write to Ginger Adams Otis at Ginger.AdamsOtis@wsj.com
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