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Home is never far for the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, even when touring in the U.S.

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra performs at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center in New York City on Thursday.
Richard Termine
The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra performs at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center in New York City on Thursday.

Updated August 19, 2022 at 4:38 PM ET

As Ukrainians fight to defend their country from Russia's war at home, others are spreading artistic messages of peace and solidarity abroad.

A group of some 75 Ukrainian musicians, including recent refugees, has spent the last month performing a whirlwind tour of Europe and the U.S. as the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra. The group formed in collaboration with the Polish National Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, with support from Ukraine's ministries of culture and foreign affairs.

It came about several months into the war, when Canadian-Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson had the idea to bring Ukraine's top musicians together — from inside and outside the country — in what she described as a "proud display of artistic unity."

"This tour is an expression of love for their homeland and to honor those who have died and have suffered so much," Wilson said in a Met news release in April. She herself grew up in Winnipeg, which is home to North America's most concentrated Ukrainian population.

The ensemble is made up of recent refugees, Ukrainian members of European orchestras and top musicians from Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa and Kharkiv, with notable talents including soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska and pianist Anna Fedorova.

It took about four months to gather all of the musicians, tour manager Aleksandra Kula told PBS, since many of them had fled Ukraine and relocated to other parts of Europe.

"That was quite tricky and difficult because it's not a regular orchestra," she explained. "These are like single musicians who are being put together as an orchestra. So most of them ... don't even know each other, and they haven't played with each other before."

Some did know each other beforehand — like cellist Yevgen Dovbysh and violinist Anna Vikhrova, a married couple from Odesa who were separated when the war began and reunited by the orchestra over the summer, as The New York Times reported.

In a show of support for the orchestra's mission, Ukraine's Ministry of Culture and Information Policy is allowing male musicians of fighting age to temporarily put down their weapons and travel abroad.

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine's minister of culture, said in a statement that culture can be "the 'soft power' that helps heal wounds." There are other tangible benefits — organizers say money raised from the tour will go to support Ukrainian artists, and encourage people to donate to the Ministry of Culture.

"This tour of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra can help not only to raise funds for supporting Ukrainian artists, it will show the world the diversity and uniqueness of Ukrainian music and Ukrainian performers," Tkachenko added.

Canadian-Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson had the idea to form the ensemble several months into the war.
/ Richard Termine
Richard Termine
Canadian-Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson had the idea to form the ensemble several months into the war.

The group has performed mostly in Europe

After just over a week of intensive rehearsals in Warsaw, the group opened its tour with a concert there at the end of July. It performed a televised performance at the BBC Proms several days later before making its way through Germany, France, Scotland, England, Ireland and Amsterdam.

The orchestra arrived in the U.S. this week for two concerts at New York's Lincoln Center on Thursday and Friday, with a final performance in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

Thursday's performance was attended by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who later wrote on Twitterthat the musicians were spreading a powerful message: "the people of Ukraine will not be silenced and will not back down."

While they may be far from home, the musicians aren't leaving their country far behind.

"Our main task as the members of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra is to show we have [a] very brilliant Ukrainian cultural heritage, and it need[s] to be heard and it need[s] to be seen," said flutist Inna Vorobets.

The orchestra's program includes music by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov and Poland's Frederic Chopin — and notably excludes Russian works. It plays Ukraine's national anthem at each concert, as some performers drape themselves in Ukrainian flags.

In short videos posted to the Met's website, several of the musicians shared why they joined the orchestra and what they hope to accomplish. Many spoke about wanting to return to their country, and in the meantime supporting the people who are defending it.

"I want the whole world to hear through music that we want to live in our beautiful and free country," said viola player Roksolana Kalynets. "My participation in this project will be dedicated to the Ukrainian people, and also to those Ukrainian people who died as a result of the Russian invasion of my land."

The audio for this story was edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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