A strange gloom spreads, into which first the horns, then the brass play a disparate triad, resolved, again and again three notes in a row that don’t go together, but aren’t really dissonant with each other either. This quirky motif wanders through all instrumental groups while a vast, late-Romantic lake of strings spreads out, beautiful. Then a disaster crashes in, noise, the blonde drummer starts to thunderous speech on her instruments, it gets louder and louder, a permanent massing, tormenting horn calls, a crazy xylophone on which a bright red-haired woman tries out all kinds of grotesque – the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra (KSO) begins its German tour in the Kulturpalast in Dresden.
What kind of music is this? An apocryphal work by Shostakovich or Stravinsky? One by Mussorgsky, pushed decades far into the 20th century? Nonsense.
What you hear here and have never heard before is the third symphony of Borys Lyatoshynskyi (1894 – 1968), composed in the years 1950/51. At this moment you can’t help but hear all the suffering of Ukraine in this music. Zhytomyr, the composer’s hometown, has meanwhile been bombed, he himself struggled with the shackles of Stalinist cultural policy during his lifetime, and now one hears this cracking and roaring, which repeatedly destroys the euphony, a sad, bitter poetry, until Lyatoshynskyi turns things around and heading for a hymn-like chorale. He wrote the last sentence: “Peace will conquer war.” The sentence had to go, the word war was not allowed to appear. Not then.
The men of the orchestra were allowed to leave the country. And have to be back on May 5th
The Kiev Symphony Orchestra is not on the run. It’s on tour, crazy as that sounds. It had been in contact with the German concert agency KD Schmid for a long time, and a first tour was planned for November of this year. If all goes well, it will happen. But the musicians didn’t want to wait that long and called the agency in early April. Organizing a tour through seven German cities within three weeks is sporty even in normal times. It’s insane under the current circumstances. But it works, the musicians are lovingly welcomed by the Dresden Philharmonic in their main building. The KSO will then play in the Elbphilharmonie and in Berlin, among other places, where a visit from the Bundestag is also planned.
On April 7, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense gave permission for the men to leave the country. Dispensation from war, they must be back by May 5th. They want too. The orchestra itself wrote a text that was not very squeamish in parts, in which they explained their project. In it, they make it clear that the KSO will continue to be paid for by the city of Kyiv, is not in the process of dissolving, will not play any works by Russian composers at the moment (which was quite normal before the war), “in order to push back the aggressor, his propaganda and manipulation. We must showcase our European values and Ukrainian art to fight Russian aggression with the gentle power of music.” The KSO gave the first concert with a purely Ukrainian program in January in Kyiv, when the “maneuvers” at the border were already taking place.
The plan may sound naïve, but they can’t help it. In the first part of the concert, the power of the music is actually very gentle. There is the first ever Ukrainian symphony, written in 1770 by Maxim Berezovsky, who brought back his idea of luminous beauty from his stays in Italy, which sounds like a very elegant Haydn. This is followed by the only non-Ukrainian piece, Ernest Chausson’s “Poème”, because it contains a message of peace and the intention is to give the soloist Diana Tishchenko a brilliant performance, which she repeats with Myroslaw Skoryk’s “Melodie in A minor”. This piece, 40 years old, is known to everyone in Ukraine, it comes from a propaganda film about partisans, it unites the nation that Putin always claims does not exist. The piece is pop, kitschy, pathetic, but according to Liubov Morozova, the artistic director of the KSO, worlds lie beneath the simple melody. In order to understand them, she sings you another song, “Nich yaka misiachna”, which is currently being played in the shelters across the country and whose content dates back to Gogol.
Talking to Morozova, one sometimes feels quite stupid. She is a shimmering spirit, worked for the Goethe Institute in Ukraine for ten years and knows everything about her country and its culture. When she says she can’t listen to any Russian music at the moment, not even Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, even though they have Ukrainian roots because all they ever hear is imperialism, then you absolutely believe her. Her whole body has become an ear. That accurately detect different detonations. She has an anger, but no warm clothes with her. She left her village near Kyiv with her two daughters when the first bombs hit.
After calling the agency, they collected the musicians who were scattered across the country in three buses. Not everyone wanted to go, the eldest son of the technical manager is at war, so his father didn’t want to leave his homeland. No sooner had the Ministry of Defense received their approval than they crossed the border to Poland. 150 people, including family members and children, played in Warsaw and Lodz. During a concert, the little daughter sometimes plucked the violinist’s dress. But it was not a happy outing, many in Poland needed psychological care. And: nobody earns money here, neither the agency nor the orchestra nor the concert halls, hopefully the entrance fees will cover the travel expenses, in Dresden the tickets cost 20 euros, refugees are allowed in for free, the hall is full.
The KSO was founded 40 years ago, it played light music, later it had a boss who, in good post-Soviet fashion, regarded it as a self-service shop. Then the management changed and they hired the Italian conductor Luigi Gaggero, a musician well versed in old and new music. That was in 2018, when he had already founded an ensemble for contemporary music in Kyiv.
Conductor Luigi Gaggero is sweating and working hard, his shirt is falling out of his trousers and he is beaming
How does a musician who teaches in Strasbourg and works internationally come to Ukraine? He was invited years ago to play the cimbalom and was “enchanted by the quality of the audience’s listening”. Absolute silence. At the KSO he then met musicians who, even after an eight-hour rehearsal, still have questions, want to continue practicing, for whom music is “a matter of life and death”. “The people there expect a spiritual message from the music. It’s not a luxury for them.” When there is no war, he himself conducts two programs a month – an extremely large number for a principal conductor. It’s a bit reminiscent of Teodor Currentzis and what he built up in Perm. Then Gaggero smiles.
He takes his job extremely seriously. He, too, like Morozova, a history encyclopedia, tells about what Peter the Great (in Ukraine he is not the great, just the first) did the first thing when he came to Kyiv: He had the libraries burned. “This war is not new.” It’s also a culture war. For this Gaggero built an orchestra with the completely enthusiastic musicians, which is technically at the absolute top level, which has an enormous sensuality in the sound. He can form Lyatoschynskyi’s completely disparate symphony into a 40-minute narration, can integrate the many solo passages perfectly, he sweats and works, at the end his shirt is hanging out of his trousers, he is beaming.
Before 1770, only fantastic folk and sacred music existed in Ukraine. The encore is a dance from the Cossack opera “Taras Bulba” by Mykola Lyssenko, which apparently many people know. Some in the audience shyly clap along, others sing softly. Then the national anthem follows. All stand. Many have their hands on their hearts. The anthem becomes an incantation for survival.