An Orchestra’s ‘Ode to Joy’ Calls for Ukrainian Freedom

Not long after the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, Leonard Bernstein traveled to the once-divided German city and led a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” replacing the word “Freude,” or joy, with “Freiheit” — freedom.

In an echo of that historic concert, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a touring ensemble formed in the early months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, presented Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the suburbs of Berlin on Thursday. And, for the famous “Ode to Joy” choral finale, the text was translated to Ukrainian, with the key word being “slava,” or glory, as in “Slava Ukrainii”: Glory to Ukraine.

“I’m driven by my passion for Ukraine,” the orchestra’s conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson, said on Thursday afternoon before the concert, at the garden of Schönhausen Palace. “And my desire to get rid of Putin and his regime through culture.”

Around her was a bustle of activity: ushers laying pillows on chairs, sound technicians consulting in a booth, pink umbrellas being placed to shield an orchestra from the sun. The orchestra, made up of 74 Ukrainian musicians — some of whom live in that country still, some of whom have fled — was about to perform as part of its second summer tour of Europe.

“Russia says there’s no Ukrainian culture, or music, or language,” said Anna Bura, a violinist in the orchestra. “They want to erase Ukrainian culture. We want to show people we are here.”

The program included the second violin concerto by the contemporary Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych, and ended with the Beethoven. While on vacation three weeks ago, Wilson arrived at the idea that the “Ode to Joy” should be sung in Ukrainian, and worked with Mykola Lukas and the vocal coach Ivgeniia Iermachkova to create a new singing translation of the Friedrich Schiller text.

The orchestra’s stop in Berlin coincided with Ukrainian Independence Day. Kyrylo Markiv, a violinist in the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, helped rehearse the choir, the Ukrainian Freedom Chorus, which was assembled for the occasion from the Diplomatic Choir of Berlin and other singers. He serves as a first-desk violinist in the Odesa Philharmonic and is choirmaster at the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, which was built in the early 19th century, reconstructed between 1999 and 2003 and then damaged last month by Russian airstrikes.

The night the cathedral was bombed, Markiv had left his violin there in preparation for a concert the next day. “My colleagues wrote in a work chat that the building was on fire,” he said. “I got dressed and went with my brother, who is a deacon there, and saw destroyed cars, fire. In the building, I looked for my violin. Everything was destroyed, but my violin was about 80 percent OK.”

Now, his violin is being repaired by a luthier in Lviv. The attack, he said, strengthened his resolve for the tour. “I’m proud that we came to show our art,” he said. “These times are hard for us. We’re strong, and the European people make us stronger.”

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Wilson’s husband, helped to arrange and raise money for this tour and the one last summer. “The intensity of the war has raised the stakes this year,” he said. “These musicians all live there or have families there. The war makes everything more intense: their playing, their relationships with each other. Everything is magnified.”

At a rehearsal on Thursday, as Wilson led the orchestra into a breakneck run-through of the Beethoven’s second movement, the two first-desk bass players, Nazarii Stets and Ivan Zavgorodniy, bounced along to the rhythm with broad smiles on their faces. Stets, who lives in Kyiv, said in an interview that this summer’s tour was less celebratory than he had hoped: “I expected it would be the victory tour, and it’s still a tour with continuous fighting.”

A member of the Kyiv Camerata, a chamber orchestra that plays contemporary Ukrainian music, he had a solo recital scheduled on the day after the invasion began.

“My bass was already at the concert hall,” Stets said. “I spent the night in my house, and then the war started.” After two months with his family in the west of the country, he returned to Kyiv. Since then, he has played in “a lot of charity and benefit concerts,” he said — mostly for the Music Unites charity fund, which donates medicine and food to children, and cars and communications equipment to soldiers.

Many musicians have used their art to raise money. The cellist Denys Karachevtsev now lives in Berlin but spent the first year of the war in his hometown, Kharkiv, the site of vicious fighting at the beginning of the conflict. More than 600,000 residents fled that city as Russian shells and rockets destroyed homes and public buildings. A video he recorded of Bach’s fifth cello suite among the ruins garnered attention and donations.

But music, Karachevtsev said, was just one part of his efforts. “I had my car,” he added, “so I was evacuating people and taking them to the trains, bringing back medicine and food. We didn’t know how the situation would go on.”

The videos brought him to the attention of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which invited him to participate this year. “I think it’s a good way to continue helping our country,” he said. Now, Karachevtsev is studying in Berlin while continuing to teach students in Kharkiv online. It is still considered too dangerous to have in-person lessons. “The nearest Russian city is about 50 kilometers away,” he said. “It takes 30 seconds for the bombs to come.”

As the sun began to set in Berlin, the orchestra ate dinner. Dignitaries, including Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Oleksiy Makeev, and the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, arrived as audience members began to file in for the free concert. Some sat in the chairs, and others spread out picnic blankets. Children ate ice cream; the atmosphere was warm and friendly.

Some people wore Ukrainian flags and some a vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered blouse. Viktoria Neroda, who arrived in Berlin as a refugee from Rivne in western Ukraine last year, said she was there primarily to celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day. “I love Ukrainian music,” she said in a German-language interview, “but I’m hearing this orchestra for the first time tonight.”

This tour’s performances are taking place at an uneasy moment for Ukrainians. The war has dragged on far longer than many expected, and hopes for a quick victory, heightened by the success of Ukrainian self-defense early on, have faded. Life is lived between air raid sirens. Every week brings more bad news: friends killed fighting on the front, family members’ homes destroyed by drone strikes or rocket attacks.

European solidarity, too, is shifting. Berlin is 10 hours by train from Przemysl, the Polish city near the Ukrainian border where, in the war’s first weeks, refugees poured in.

Berlin citizens swung into action: operating welcome centers, bringing supplies to train stations, offering rooms in their apartments. Governments announced special visa rules for Ukrainian refugees. German lawmakers spoke of a “Zeitenwende,” an epochal change in German defense policy, and sent, if sometimes reluctantly, weapons and tanks to the Ukrainian army.

At the Berlin State Opera, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko withdrew under pressure from a new production of Puccini’s “Turandot” because she had not, the house stated, adequately distanced herself from the invasion. She had said that she opposed the war, but didn’t go as far as criticizing the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, whom she had supported in the past.

Solidarity is still visible, but it is also beginning to splinter. Many Germans, struggling with inflation, fuel bills and the country’s economic stagnation, are questioning the price of support. The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has been sympathetic to Putin, has surged in the polls. And classical music stages, where Russia was long a moneymaking destination, have also wavered. As the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra rehearsed last week, Netrebko was set to start rehearsals for a revival of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the State Opera in September. (The company’s leader, Matthias Schulz, told Berlin public radio this year that Netrebko had spoken out, in his opinion, as far as she was able.)

Thursday’s concert, then, was both a celebration of Ukraine’s independence and Germany’s solidarity, and part of an effort to preserve those two things. After speeches from the dignitaries, the orchestra launched into energetic, insistent Verdi, followed by a searing account of the Stankovych concerto. That piece ends with a sustained, harmonious major third in the strings, which clashes with the solo violin’s plucked minor third. The dissonance holds, softly, then fades out.

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