Making the case for cultural freedom with their instruments, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [13], Prom 19a – Silvestrov, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms: Anna Fedorova (piano), Liudmyla Monastyrska (soprano), Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra / Keri-Lynn Wilson (conductor). Recorded (directed by ) at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.7.2022. Available on BBC iPlayer. (JPr)

The Ukranian Freedom Orchestra conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson  © Mark Allan/BBC

Valentin Silvestrov – Symphony No.7
Chopin – Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor
Beethoven – ‘Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’ (Fidelio)
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor

I am watching my Proms this summer on TV and have pledged not to comment on the quality of their presentation but the words of Petroc Trelawny tells you all you need to know about this special event. He began: ‘Today at the BBC Proms Ukrainian musicians come together in defence of artistic freedom and liberty. More than 70 musicians got the call, many left loved ones on the front line, they picked up their instruments and they began to play. The Proms marks the first stop on their international tour, in what is to be an historic concert we welcome the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.’ Continuing, ‘It is more than five months since the war in Ukraine began and today the nation’s classical musicians are to the fore. They have come to London from Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odessa and many other Ukrainian towns and cities. Some have lived away from their homeland for some time playing in great orchestras and ensembles around the world. Others have had their lives turned upside down and have stayed in Ukraine throughout the war and are now making the case for cultural freedom with their instruments.’

At the present time the stalemate between Ukraine and Russia is largely forgotten in this country and those who are the latest celebrities to sign up for this autumn’s return of Strictly Come Dancing get more coverage in the mainstream media. The current cost of living crisis and imminent recession in the UK has been mainly fuelled (!) by the war, but how many times do you hear that mentioned too? I doubt the people who really need to be reminded of Ukraine’s plight will be those who go to their concerts or watch this (and others?) on TV. At least the reverence afforded to the string arrangement of the Ukrainian National Anthem by Ukrainian composer Yuri Shevchenko will go a long way to show the support for political and cultural freedom that we all wish for the peoples of Ukraine. Shevchenko channelled Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen he wrote as an elegy to the senseless destruction of life and culture in the Second World War (seems all too familiar). As musicians and audiences stood and listened, the strings led by the sombre violin of Marko Komonko brought a heightened intensity of emotion to what we heard which was missing elsewhere in this concert with its flag-waving Last Night of the Proms atmosphere.

The Ukranian Freedom Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2022 © Mark Allan/BBC

Regardless, it is all rather critic-proof and it would be totally wrong to forensically review the nearly two hours of music played without an interval. Only one work from a Ukrainian composer was programmed (two if you include the National Anthem) but the pianist Anna Fedorova and soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska are Ukrainian and Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson claims Ukrainian descent. Valentin Silvestrov’s 2003 Seventh Symphony is a short, unsentimental, one-movement work. I may be accused of more Mahler-spotting but there is quite a lot of that composer’s spectral bleakness and sense of resignation: while the thoughts that all is not lost is ushered in by a lengthy piano cadenza before the music gives up the ghost and fades out at the end. The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra proved themselves an accomplished ensemble under the rather rigid beat, here and throughout all their music, of Keri-Lynn Wilson.

I am sure every piano concerto has its own technical demands but Chopin’s 1830 No.2 provided a wonderful showcase for Fedorova’s virtuosity and at some moments her hands were ablur with her quicksilver runs along the keyboard. The opening Maestoso began quietly and became more tempestuous overall, it is lyrical and melodious with any intensity mainly in the orchestral accompaniment. The Larghetto is something of great beauty, and inspired by Polish soprano Konstancja Gładkowska, the soloist’s role is a song-like one. The Allegro vivace finale is a trill-fest and there is a hint of a dance, the music becomes quietly meditative before the piano ends the concerto with a flourish.

Leonore’s ‘Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’ from Beethoven’s Fidelio was described in the commentary as filled with anger and rage, then hope and freedom. I am sure Liudmyla Monastyrska will make more of the German words as the tour progresses and communicate that to better to audiences.

As I have nothing to compare it against, I thought Brahms’s 1885 Fourth Symphony sounded perfectly ‘nice’ and well-played by the orchestra. The opening Allegro non troppo saw Wilson almost dancing on the podium during its serene opening, although the music takes a darker turn towards the end of the movement. My note suggested an eastern character to the Andante moderato which I later discovered was a theme in Phrygian mode and the movement adopts a measured tread, climaxes and subsides. Brahms requires lush strings and the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra excels here. The Allegro giocoso is clearly the scherzo and undoubtedly joyful, ending in a rousing fashion. The last movement (Allegro energico e passionate) is a symphonic passacaglia beginning with some portentous brass and it builds inexorably to a conclusion which the commentary suggested had allowed joy and hope to banish deep gloom. Music has the power to do this temporarily but cannot provide any lasting fix to a troubled and fractured world.

Jim Pritchard

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