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The Ukrainian musicians fighting rocket attacks with rehearsals

Performing music has become a politicised act of defiance in war-torn Ukraine

Ukranian Freedom Orchestra

Ukranian Freedom Orchestra

On my own phone, there’s one to pay for car parking, another for identifying recorded music – and bird song – along with a tube map and various streaming platforms. But Roman Oleksiienko, trumpeter and deputy director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, has an app with far more serious implications. 

The 35-year-old’s mobile plays a loud warning if Kyiv is coming under attack, alerting its user to head to the nearest shelter. In an interview with BBC Music magazine, Oleksiienko and colleagues have shared unsettling details about life in war-torn Ukraine. While several members of the orchestra are now on active service, the rest of the ensemble continues to work in the capital, fitting rehearsals around all-too frequent rocket attacks.

It’s not the only group determined to keep playing: the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra – formed last year in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera and the Polish National Opera – is currently on a European tour that culminates with two UK concerts (Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 2 September and Barbican, London, 3 September).

Canada-based Keri-Lynn Wilson, the ensemble’s founding conductor and music director – of Ukrainian descent herself – believes that music can raise the profile of Ukraine while the country fights for its freedom. The orchestra is now under the patronage of Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, suggesting that the Ukrainian government also sees merit in politicising concerts. 

For its upcoming UK visit, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra will play works by Ukrainian composers Yevhen Stankovych (the second violin concerto) and Myroslav Skoryk (Melody), with violinist Valeriy Sokolov. The main portion of the programme is devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 – known as the ‘Eroica’, a heroic epic originally inspired by Napoleon (the title ‘Buonaparte’ was inscribed on the first page of the manuscript). But just as statues can be toppled and celebrities can be cancelled, Napoleon’s later activities resulted in Beethoven revoking the connection. 

When the composer was told by his pupil Ferdinand Ries that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, Beethoven reportedly lost his temper, tearing up the title page. The music mixes breathtaking melodies with anguished military marches and funeral-like processions – a fitting, emotional choice for the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.

Creating internationally significant artistic events aside, what does a conductor actually do? There have been many televised attempts to demystify the process over the years – most notably BBC’s Maestro (2008), a ‘Strictly Come Conducting’ reality series which saw victor Sue Perkins stepping on to the podium during that year’s Last Night of the Proms. This time it is the turn of comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan, who have a go (with varying degrees of success) at conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Comedians Romesh Raganathan and Rob Beckett in tuxedos at the Royal Albert Hall
Rob & Romesh Vs Classical Music is available on Sky Max/Now TV. Image: Adam Lawremce

It’s part of Rob & Romesh Vs – a Challenge Anneka-style format that pits the duo against different specialisms. Over the course of multiple series, Beckett and Ranganathan have sampled everything from ballet to basketball – and now it’s classical music. To add the necessary jeopardy, the comedians agreed to perform at the Royal Festival Hall (a concert that took place in May, seemingly to a paying audience), with just one week’s preparation. 

After a whistle-stop tour of Venice to ‘learn’ opera, Ranganathan reveals some limited skills as a singer, and is volunteered to sing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma (the aria closely associated with Pavarotti after he sung it at the 1990 FIFA World Cup) with full orchestra. Beckett, meanwhile, gets to play
timpani – “the big drum” as he puts it – and gentle chaos ensues. 

Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra tickets available here
Rob & Romesh Vs Classical Music is available on Sky Max/Now TV

Listen to… The Garden Sounds

Andrea Baroldi’s The Garden Sounds album cover

In Roald Dahl’s short story The Sound Machine, published
in The New Yorker in 1949, an inventor creates a device
that detects plants’ emotions, translating their language into English. When an axe falls on a tree, the machine picks up that the branches are requesting that a doctor “paints-the-cut-with-iodine”.

Life is now imitating art as Stiga, a distributor of garden equipment, has released an album that it claims reveals the voice of plants including Climbing Ivy, Blooming Tulip, Pale Iris and Night Lavender.

Milanese musician and sound designer Andrea Baroldi has translated the frequencies emitted by the leaves into melodies audible to the human ear in a surprisingly compelling collection of electro-foliage.

The Garden Sounds is available on all streaming platforms.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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