A Ukrainian orchestra speaks with quiet intensity

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A Ukrainian orchestra speaks with quiet intensity
An attendee waves the Ukrainian flag as the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra performed outside the Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Aug. 18, 2022. The orchestra, convened just a month ago, showed its defiance with a performance of sophistication, craft, rigor and subtlety. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony doesn’t mean anything. Like much of the classical music repertory, it has no text, no plot. It elicits emotions but not in a rigidly defined way. At a concert, your neighbor’s experience of it, her explanation of its effect, will almost certainly be different from yours.

It’s also, like much of the repertory, chameleonic — a different piece if you’ve suffered a heartbreak or celebrated a joy. On Thursday, when the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra performed the symphony at Lincoln Center, the notes were the same as ever. But, played by dozens of Ukrainian musicians on a mild evening in Damrosch Park, the score took on an air of calm but implacable defiance, what French poet Arthur Rimbaud once called “burning patience.” There was no hysteria to this Brahms, just resolute intensity.

Although the performance, with its unified, focused passion, seemed like the work of a well-practiced ensemble, this orchestra convened for the first time only a month ago, as an effort to showcase Ukraine’s culture and what the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has called “artistic resistance” to the Russian invasion.

It is the brainchild of conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who has Ukrainian roots, and her husband, Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Wilson and Gelb rallied sponsors and the assistance of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, Poland, which hosted rehearsals and the first show of a 12-city tour, which continues through Saturday in Washington.

Playing under Wilson’s baton, the musicians represent a range of Ukrainian ensembles, and some are members of orchestras elsewhere in Europe. The Ukrainian government made the crucial contribution of allowing male players to participate in the tour, even though men of military age are now barred from leaving the country.

But make no mistake: The men and women of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra are fighting. As critic Jason Farago wrote last month in The New York Times, the risks to Ukrainian culture “are more than mere collateral damage” in this battle. This is, he added, a true culture war; Russia is seeking not just land but also the erasure of a country’s artistic output and history. Anyone who is resisting that is a soldier.

“I don’t have a gun,” one of the orchestra’s musicians told the Times recently, “but I have my cello.”

So it was natural that the evening had its moments of national pride. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, took the stage to declare “Glory to Ukraine,” and Wilson echoed that sentiment — in Ukrainian — from the podium. A huge Ukrainian flag stretched behind the musicians; at the end, the soloists took a bow wrapped in flags, and still more were waved in the audience.

But this wasn’t a performance given over to jingoism; it favored refinement. You got the impression that the best way to fight imperialism and authoritarianism — from the concert stage, at least — was with sophistication, craft, rigor, subtlety. For all its moments of high drama, the program was admirably even-keeled and soft-spoken, an embodiment of a cultured nation. Even the arrangement of the Ukrainian anthem at the end was impressionistic and elegant, the opposite of stentorian.

There has never been a perfect outdoor orchestral performance; instruments made for warm indoor acoustics take on an edge, and overamplified strings swamp the woodwinds every time. This was not the best possible setting for the U.S. premiere of preeminent Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 7 (2003), a poignant and canny single-movement work that begins in agony; dips (a la Dmitri Shostakovich) knowingly into kitschy sweetness; and then slowly dissolves, ending with the eerie, toneless sound of breathing through brasses.

Pianist Anna Fedorova was a sensitive, poetic soloist in Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a nod to the Polish support for the Freedom Orchestra project. Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska — who replaced Anna Netrebko at the Met after Netrebko’s contracts were canceled in the wake of the Russian invasion — sang Leonore’s aria of rebellion from Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

But most impressive was the Brahms symphony, not a piece easily thrown together by a pickup orchestra. (On Friday at Damrosch, as the closing night of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City festival, the Brahms will be replaced by Antonín Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and the “Fidelio” aria by Aida’s paean to her homeland, “O patria mia.”)

Despite the outdoor acoustics, the sound was remarkably rich in the first movement; the second was eloquent; the third buoyant but still substantial, carried off with understated panache.

The finale was less ferocious than you might have thought it would be, given the occasion, and was all the more moving for that restraint. Some have heard in the end of Brahms’ Fourth grimness and destruction, a kind of gorgeous annihilation. This was the opposite: a declaration of continued presence.

It’s not quite true that the work is pure music, without any external connections; you just have to dig a bit. Brahms derived the theme of the finale from the final movement of a Bach cantata, the opening words of which could have been this concert’s — and this orchestra’s — credo: “My days of suffering, God will finally end in joy.”

Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra

Through Friday at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, lincolncenter.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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