‘There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen to musical life, or general life, in Ukraine’

Ahead of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra’s appearance in Dublin, pianist Anna Fedorova talks about what’s happening in her country

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which appears at the National Concert Hall on Monday, August 15th. It’s new. So new that it’s just about to give its first ever concert, and its debut in Warsaw will be followed by a tour that also takes it 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 leg is actually something of a homecoming. The orchestra is the brainchild of the 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. In the wake of the Russian invasion last February, she raised with him the idea of an international musical response to the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, and he immediately set about helping her make it happen.

Since Poland has become home to such a large number of Ukrainian refugees, they linked up with the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, home of Polish National Opera. Other international partners include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture in Ukraine itself, as well as leading London arts management company, Askonas Holt, whose chief executive, Donagh Collins, is Irish – he’s a brother of the pianist Finghin Collins. He has said he hopes the concerts “will serve as an expression of defiance and resistance, providing moments to express hope for a brighter future”.

The musicians include refugees, top players from Ukrainian orchestras, musicians who have been conscripted into the Ukrainian army but are being given time off to participate in the project, and émigré Ukrainian musicians from orchestras around Europe. The logistics of international orchestral touring are formidable at the best of times. But the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra’s tour is probably going to set some kind of record, given the speed with which it has had to be planned, the state of health and travel in the world it has been planned for, the unusual status of some of its members, and the complexity of the manifests and carnets that are going to have to be filled out.


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

Just two years ago conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee wrote words about the symphony that are even more acutely apt now than they were then: “The Seventh Symphony is at the core of everything that is memorable and deeply affecting in Silvestrov’s lament for what we are still in the midst of losing. Personal loss; civilisation’s loss.”

The soloist in 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 to have played in 2020, then again in 2021, before finally making it to Bantry House in 2022.

She’s one of those people who’s been immersed in music all her life. “I was born into a family of pianists. Both my parents are musicians. They’re both wonderful pianists and piano teachers. I’ve always been surrounded by music and I began studying piano as early as it was possible to start teaching me.”

Her career path is a little bit out of the ordinary. She went to a specialised music school in her home town, Kyiv, which enabled her to focus on music and allowed what she calls “flexibility with regular subjects” when she had to play in a competition or a concert, or needed extra time to practise.

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 sense the swell of pride when she talks about making her debut in Amsterdam’s great Concertgebouw at so young an age. And, even though she still continued to study, she’s never looked back since.

She did competitions as a child, but very few later on. “I stopped quite early. Because it was impossible to combine preparation for competitions and the schedule of the competitions with my concert schedule.” But she still has good things to say about the competitions she entered. “They still gave something to me. I didn’t win all the competitions I entered. At some of them I met people who would become important in my life. I met managers. I met promoters. I was invited to record a CD. Things like that, which are also very important.”

She’s based in the Netherlands, and it’s there she met her American husband, Nicholas Schwartz, a double bassist in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. A career working out of Ukraine never seemed a realistic option. She presents a less than rosy picture of artistic life there. “I must say it’s not very easy, because music is funded very badly in Ukraine. And obviously there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen to musical life, or general life, in Ukraine. When I was there it was difficult to imagine being an artist performing mostly in Ukraine and managing to survive on it. The funding of arts 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 concerts and great festivals, including ones which brought international great names.” So, for instance, she cherishes a youthful memory of hearing Luciano Pavarotti in Kyiv and, after mentioning cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Nikolai Lugansky, says that it was probably Russian performers who were best represented.

The 84-year-old Silvestrov, who escaped in the early days of the war and is now in Berlin, clearly has a special place in her musical affections. “He wrote some wonderful piano sonatas,” she says, “a lot of smaller pieces, and I now love to perform one of his pieces for solo piano called The Messenger. I play it very often as the last piece of a concert, either as an encore or as the final piece. It brings you into a completely different dimension, very peaceful, with hope and light – what everyone needs now.”

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

I ask her about life in the wake of the invasion. “It’s a very, very difficult time since February. I guess the thing which keeps me going, and prevents me from going into some really dark place, is music. In the beginning, in the first few days we all were completely paralysed. We couldn’t do anything, couldn’t think about anything. But then we decided that we should do something, and we can actually help, with musicians from our place, by organising benefit concerts for Ukraine. We did lots and lots of them, with the help of lots of people who were very supportive and enthusiastic, including in the Concertgebouw and in The Hague. We did it in one week. The tickets went on sale just three days before the concert, and in 30 hours they were all gone.”

She has also been in the process of starting 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 a place to stay, support, instruments, and they wanted to continue their musical education. We organised lessons and concerts for them, and they’re now actually being invited to different festivals. And they also want to study at the new academy, so we need to fundraise a lot of scholarships for them.”

This year’s big turning point for her was the resumption of music-making 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 was in pain all the time. It was a really terrible feeling. Music somehow brought me back to life.”

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

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor