KharkivMusicFest is both one of the newest and one of the largest classical music festivals in Ukraine. Founded in 2018, it opened with an ambitious program. Since then the festival has faced huge challenges—a pandemic, a war—yet has still managed to find ways of offering culture to people in Kharkiv. In 2022, I became artistic director of the festival.

In a sense, the war, and the desire to make art in spite of it, brought me and my team together. In 2019, I led a music project in Sievierodonetsk and other cities on the front. KharkivMusicFest staff heard about the project and soon invited me to their city, first as a conductor. After a successful collaboration, I was offered the position of artistic director of the festival. The first edition under my leadership was scheduled for spring 2022. 

Photo © Oleksandr Osipov

In the early weeks of the invasion, we were subjected to massive bombardment and enemy fire. Still, we managed to put on four performances in air-raid bunkers in Kharkiv, calling them “concerts between the explosions.” We even managed to stick to the festival’s original opening date: March 26, 2022. 

Over a year later, we are maneuvering between our desire for normalcy and the dangers of our location. Despite the ambivalence of this situation, the festival has stayed true to its mission: presenting exciting and thought-provoking events for the people of Kharkiv, and creating meaning and cultural connection. 

This year, we managed to put on eight full-length concerts at locations from a concert hall to a hospital. We also performed a diverse range of music, from pieces by famous international composers to works by Ukrainian youth, who used the language of sound to express their experiences of wartime. In addition, we placed pianos all around the city that anyone could play. Another important expression of the new reality were the Art Therapy Days. Anyone could access music workshops, readings, and plays, organized by professional psychologists and therapists, and get help with a low barrier to entry.  

This year, we also managed to realize a project we’d originally planned a year before the invasion, a project that hardly seemed possible given the current situation: A dance production of Terry Riley’s “In C” with choreography by Sasha Waltz. At the moment, Ukraine is almost completely isolated from international artists (most of whom would prefer not to travel for safety reasons, especially not to regions like Kharkiv). 

Photo © Evgeniy Korol
Photo © Evgeniy Korol

Waltz created this choreography to “In C” at the beginning of the pandemic, when dancers could only work from home. In the early stages of the production, the dancers had to learn all of their movements separately. Something similar happened in Ukraine: dancers from Kyiv and Kharkiv gathered in various studios and spent over a month studying remotely with Orlando Rodriguez from Sasha Waltz & Guests (SW&G), Waltz’s company. In June, just days before the performance, the dancers finally met in Kharkiv to rehearse together. It was a moving project, and it’s hard to say who was happiest: the dancers, who got to work with a renowned choreographer and learn something new and otherwise unavailable in Ukraine; or SW&G, which got to take part in a collaboration so obviously important to everyone involved.

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The concept of “In C” mirrors current developments in society through the language of art. In Riley’s music and Waltz’s choreography, there are 53 patterns that run consecutively and overlap. Each performer decides on their own when to proceed to the next pattern, in turn inspiring the others to follow them. An interesting detail in the choreography is that the dancers must proceed from one movement to the next in chronological order, and should never be too removed from the others. This creates a group dynamic of constant development; everyone must simultaneously perceive, react to, and lead everyone else. We wanted to show that both on stage and off a single leader is not always necessary. The dancers each have much to offer and can inspire others with their suggestions. Competence, cooperation, diversity, inspiration, leadership, and solidarity—these are the principles of “In C,” principles we wanted to share with Kharkiv audiences. 

Photo © Evgeniy Korol
Photo © Evgeniy Korol

The last time I’d been in Kharkiv was before the outbreak of the war, but for this edition of KharkivMusicFest, I was finally able to return and lead the final performance of the festival. My impressions of the city were ambivalent. When we are outside of Ukraine, we tend to construct an image, distorted by our constant consumption of news media and the impossibility of experiencing things first hand, that is out of sync with reality. Often, we think that life comes to a complete standstill when Russian rockets fly. But Kharkiv, where various estimates show that the population has grown back to over a million people, remains vibrant. The city center is crowded; it can be hard to find a parking spot. The malls and parks are full of people enjoying the summer. Buildings damaged by bombs have been patched up with care—just with plywood instead of glass. Monuments are covered, as if in hibernation from a too-long winter. Sergey Polituchiy, the founder and patron of our festival, says, “The city is wounded, but alive.” 

Sometimes things do change, especially at night. It’s like a game: The dark forest sleeps and the werewolves prowl. Everyone is subscribed to several Telegram channels that warn of upcoming air raids. Reconnaissance units keep their eyes on the uneasy eastern horizon and alarm the populace as soon as they see missiles launching, then try to figure out the trajectory of the rockets. Every day, with a certain regularity, we hear air-raid sirens. In Kharkiv, though, no one pays attention to these alarms. In my first hours in the city, I heard one, and had to quickly learn a simple rule: the alarm means a rocket has been spotted in the region, not in the city. That means there’s no cause for alarm. When I asked others what to do when a rocket is spotted in Kharkiv itself, they responded that there is no point in worrying because Kharkiv is close enough to the Russian border that the alarms barely have enough time to sound before a rocket lands. All you can do is go about your work. Bravery and fatalism walk hand in hand here.  

Concerts and other large events with more than 50 spectators can only be held in Kharkiv under very restricted conditions. In fact, there are only two places where such events are possible: a theater and concert hall (formerly the small hall of the Kharkiv Opera), and the Yermilov Center. Our “In C” took place in the former, our final concert in the latter. (A third venue has now been restored to its original purpose as a subway station.)

We played our final concert in the Yermilov Center. It’s an exhibition space that also serves as an air-raid shelter. It was never conceived for musical events; the acoustic is muddy and there is no proper separation between stage and audience. We decided to play with the space, and the majority of the program consisted of pieces that could be performed well despite the resonance. 

Our concert had two components, ones that were constantly mixing: an opera gala and a symphony concert. In the gala portion, two Ukrainian singers who had the courage to come to Kharkiv performed: Tamara Kalinkina, a soprano from the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv, and Vitaliy Bilyy, a baritone from the Opera Odessa. The orchestra was the Chamber Orchestra of the Kharkiv Opera, which consisted of the few professional musicians still living in the city (even with a population of a million, we were unable to find a bassoonist). Our concertmaster was Vera Lytovchenko: when the war broke out, she gave frequent concerts in air-raid bunkers and reported from Kharkiv. A selection of famous opera arias and Ukrainian songs gave the performance a certain musical solemnity. After all, it’s been a year and a half since the city has had a concert like this one. 

Photo © Oleksandr Osipov

The symphony concert portion of the concert was influenced by my desire to support the people of Kharkiv, to greet them and show our solidarity through music. We had quiet music by Valentin Silvestrov which, thanks to its phantasmagoric echoes, worked astoundingly well in the acoustic of the bunker. I had gotten to know Silvestrov personally at the beginning of the war, since it happened that I was the one who drove him from the Ukrainian border to Berlin. He’s been living there since, and for several months he had my piano in his apartment, so he could compose new works. He played one of them, titled “Hymn,” when we last saw one another. Since then, I couldn’t shake the idea of playing the piece in Kharkiv. Silvestrov had composed it for a solo melodic instrument (bassoon or horn) with an echo through the depressed piano pedal. We agreed that I’d orchestrate the piece, with its unsettling motives (“unsettled” and “alarm” are the same word in Ukrainian) and fragments of the Ukrainian national anthem, especially for the concert. Silvestrov gave me instructions on how to recreate the echo effects and the ragged, uncertain texture of the “Hymn” in the orchestral version. Over and over, the melody begins to develop, to strengthen, and over and over, it suddenly falls silent… 

Besides that, we played one of Arvo Pärt’s most popular works, the “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” a piece which has never been performed in Kharkiv. Pärt and his wife sent musical and personal greetings to the people of the city. Due to the drama of the piece, we decided to dedicate the performance to all the heroes whose bravery allowed us to put on a musical event in the center of this free city. For me, a Berlin-based Belarusian conductor, it was important that a Ukrainian lead this work. My assistant, Ivan Stetsky, and the musicians of the orchestra played with an emotional depth that led to many tears in the audience. 

Photo © Oleksandr Osipov

But the most emotional moment of the concert, and the festival, was the end, when we played the Ukrainian national anthem, free of echoes and alarms. Immediately, everyone stood and began to sing. No explanations were necessary. They stood together until the final note. As they still do, in Kharkiv and in Ukraine. ¶

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