Ukrainian Orchestra Spreads Cultural Spirit In Extensive U.S. Tour

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Principal conductor Theodore Kuchar led the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine at the Wildstein Center for the Performing Arts in Florida, part of a 40-performance U.S. tour. (Photo by Lyubov Dika-Kuchar)

AVON PARK, Fla. — When the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine had just embarked on its almost two-month U.S. tour, which began in mid-January with seven concerts in seven days in seven venues scattered around Florida, the musicians got bad news from back home. On Jan. 14, a Russian missile demolished part of a large apartment complex in Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine, and killed more than 45 residents, including children.

“That was absolutely horrible news, to hear that entire families were wiped out,” said violin soloist Vladyslava Luchenko a few days later. “You feel like your heart is broken open when you allow yourself to grieve. But we still go out onstage to perform.”

Vladyslava Luchenko was the soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto.

The symphony orchestra from Lviv, the largest city of western Ukraine, is on the road in the U.S. through March 3, when its final concert is to be given in Ames, Iowa. In all, the schedule includes 36 concerts in the Southeast and up the East Coast and into the Midwest and Plains States. In an oddity for a touring orchestra, it also has four performances Feb. 6-9 at Radio City Music Hall to play the movie score for showings on a giant screen of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. On Feb. 15, the orchestra will play Carnegie Hall.

The tour, which has musicians and crew traveling in two buses along with a tractor-trailer truck for instruments and gear, is a physically demanding grind. It was planned before Russia invaded Ukraine and is managed by CAMI Music, a remnant of the once-dominant classical music agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc., which folded in 2020. The tour was arranged by longtime CAMI powerbroker Andrew Grossman, and the U.S. State Department had a role in making it happen.

“Normally, a tour like this — Florida, New York City, across America — would be something to look forward to,” said Theodore Kuchar, the Ukrainian American who is principal conductor of the Lviv Philharmonic. “But people in the orchestra are extremely traumatized by the war, and being away for so long causes a lot of anxiety.”

The orchestra has performed in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic since the Russian invasion commenced on Feb. 24, 2022, but the musicians have not been away from home for as long as they will be on the U.S. tour. “We have never wanted to be home as much as we do now,” said Solomia Onyskiv, a violinist in the orchestra. “I’ve known musicians and artists who have gone to fight in the war, and several are dead.”

Luchenko, a native of Kyiv who is now concertmaster of the Theater Orchester Biel Solothurn in Switzerland, acknowledged the pain that Lviv players are feeling, but said she felt it was a privilege to be on the tour. “It’s a way for us to fight as well,” she said. “We musicians are not trained to fight on the front lines. If we can show the U.S. public our music, our culture, and the greatness of Ukraine, then this mission is worth our being away from home so long.”

In Lviv, the orchestra has been able to perform more or less normally in Philharmonic Hall, although their activities are often halted by air-raid sirens and power outages. The war has been heaviest in eastern Ukraine, where the military fighting dates back to 2014, but lately Russian airstrikes have more frequently reached western Ukraine. “I live about 15 minutes’ walk from the hall,” Onyskiv said. “Russia fires rockets at the power stations. Sometimes we have only four hours a day of electricity. It’s awful, and during the winter it gets cold.”

During the war, the Lviv Philharmonic has been able to continue to perform at its home Philharmonic Hall. (Yuri Gryaznov)

I heard the orchestra in a pair of performances, first on Jan. 18 at the Venice Performing Arts Center on the Gulf Coast in a presentation of the Sarasota Concert Association, and then the next evening at the Wildstein Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of South Florida State College in Avon Park in central Florida. The programs mostly consisted of the familiar repertoire (Brahms, Grieg, Dvořák, Beethoven) that presenters tend to prefer for drawing an audience, but each concert included a Ukrainian work.

In Venice, the 1,100-seat hall was close to full, with many audience members coming from the nearby town of North Port, which has an estimated 5,000 residents of Ukrainian descent, evident in the Orthodox churches there and colorful Ukrainian Easter eggs for sale in shops. Many in the crowd waved little yellow and blue Ukrainian flags during a joyous Slavonic dance number from the ballet Soychyne Krylo (“The Jay’s Wing”) by Ukrainian composer Anatol Kos-Anatolsky (1909-1983). An exhibit of contemporary Ukrainian art called “Unbreakable” from the Kozytskyi Charity Foundation was on display in the lobby.

In Avon Park, for an audience of 800 in the 1,460-seat hall, the program opened with the Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Flute and Strings by Yevhen Stankovych, one of Ukraine’s leading composers, who turned 80 in September. Principal flute Michailo Sosnovsky was the agile soloist in the 17-minute work, deploying an affectingly nostalgic tone in his playing, which was well supported by the string orchestra. It came as no surprise that the Lviv strings were excellent, considering that Ukraine’s musical lineage includes such legendary violinists as Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, and David Oistrakh. In a warm touch, concertgoers gave bouquets of bright yellow sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, to the orchestra.

Principal flute Michailo Sosnovsky was featured in Stankovych’s Chamber Symphony No. 3. (Roderik Kučavik)

Kuchar, who grew up in Cleveland, where he studied viola performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music before turning to conducting, is a tireless advocate for Ukrainian music. He has been a significant musical presence in the country since 1994, when he became artistic director and principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in Kyiv, taking it on a 44-concert U.S. tour in 2017. With that orchestra he recorded acclaimed CDs of works by Stankovych and Ukraine’s most revered 20th century composer, Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968), part of the conductor’s extensive discography with the Naxos label.

With the Lviv Philharmonic, Kuchar led recent recordings for Toccata Classics of orchestral works by Thomas de Hartmann (1884-1956), a Ukrainian composer who is “the greatest discovery of my musical existence,” the conductor said. “His Violin Concerto is sensational. It was offered to presenters as part of the tour repertoire, but because he’s an unknown name, it wasn’t asked for except by the University of Massachusetts.” Andriy Tchaikovsky is the soloist in the Hartmann Violin Concerto Feb. 10 in Amherst, Mass.

Because there are only 66 musicians on the tour, the Lviv Philharmonic seemed a bit underpowered at times, and all the hours they spent in the buses crisscrossing Florida took a toll. The French horns and brass sounded tired and imprecise in the Venice curtain-raiser, Brahms’ “Tragic” Overture. But the orchestra rebounded strongly in the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Luchenko as soloist. The performance was enthralling, from her slashing traversal of the Joachim cadenza to the keening emotion she brought to the slow movement, and the orchestra shone in the rousing finale.

The next day, I asked Luchenko if she could imagine playing the violin concertos of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and other Russian composers. “Not now,” she said. “Of course, I know these concertos. I’ve played them. But right now, as a Ukrainian, it is unthinkable to play this music. How could we Ukrainians play Russian music at the same time as Russians are trying to kill us? I think that playing Russian music should be forbidden worldwide as long as they engage in terrorism.”

Stanislav Khristenko, soloist in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.

To play or not to play Russian music? That was a question Kuchar addressed after the invasion began. “Chances are, if this war hadn’t happened, we’d be playing Tchaikovsky on the tour,” he said. In fact, when Carnegie Hall announced its 2022-23 season, the Lviv Philharmonic program included Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with Ukrainian American pianist Stanislav Khristenko as soloist. But with the war under way, Kuchar and Carnegie officials reconsidered. Instead, Khristenko will play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.

The most often played work on the tour is Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony (From the New World). “If I have to take any music to my grave, it will be Dvořák,” Kuchar said. “He is the great Ukrainian symphonist that Ukraine never had. Dvořák was extremely influenced by all the Slavic cultures, and I feel the Ukrainian spirit throughout his music.”

In Venice, Kuchar spoke from the stage about Ukraine’s complex, intertwined history with Russia, and how hellish conditions are now. “We are living through nightmares that nobody could have imagined a year ago — no electricity, no running water in some places, no gas, rocket attacks — because of Putin’s pointless war,” he said. “We want to thank you for supporting us. We are very grateful to the United States. If it were not for your support, our fight would be much more difficult. And I will tell you that Ukrainians will not give up, and they will not compromise in ending the war and returning to being a safe, stable, proud democracy.”

Kuchar’s remarks drew prolonged applause, after which the orchestra plunged right into Dvořák’s heroic themes. It was a stirring, unforgettable experience.