Before February 24, 2022, Serhiy Lykhomanenko was the conductor of the MASO “Slobozhansky” Symphony Orchestra in Kharkiv and the Eclectic Sound Orchestra in Kyiv. Now, he is the Head of Public Relations for the Fifth Assault Regiment of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “At the moment, we’re at the epicenter of the battles for the city of Bakhmut,” he told me in late February. “And, while I’m getting used to my job, I’m not giving up hope of going back to my musical profession.” 

VAN: Do you remember what you were doing on February 23, 2022, the day before the Russian invasion—the last day of your “old” life? 

Serhiy Lykhomanenko: I had a concert with my Eclectic Sound Orchestra. Although the hall was full, everyone—both the musicians and the audience—had an uneasy feeling. The premiere of a new concert was planned for the next day, we’d been preparing for it for almost two months. After the concert, we had to decide what to do about the premiere. I went to the dressing room and told the orchestra that the new orchestral show had to be postponed. I still don’t know why I said that; it was probably an intuitive decision. Unfortunately, the premonitions came true. 

How did you experience the following day? 

At 5 a.m. on February 24, all of Ukraine woke up to the news of the Russian invasion. Everyone began to gather and evacuate. The explosions were already clearly audible in Kyiv. I brought my flute player to the train station, then I took my family out of town to my parents’ place. We spent the first three days of the war there, outside the city, in front of the TV and on the internet. 

By February 27, I had decided that it was better to have a weapon in my hands than to just wait for the invaders. On the same day, I returned to the city and went to the volunteer units that were being formed in many districts of Kyiv. On February 28, I enlisted as a soldier. I received a weapon and became a combat medic in a rifle unit, because I had gotten a secondary medical education. That’s how my military career began.

The first few months of the invasion were sobering. We needed to be ready for anything. I began to look for food, water, and medicine, and started to think about how to help relatives and people who couldn’t provide essentials for themselves. There were no thoughts of going abroad.

The unit I joined was made up of ordinary people like me. Little by little we were deployed to areas of active hostilities. I was involved in evacuating the wounded from Bucha and Lyutizh, a suburb of Kyiv. I don’t remember moments when I fell into despair, because there was always something to do, something to learn. All I can say is that I was struck by the solidarity among everyone I met at that time. Strangers treated each other like close relatives. It was inspiring, it gave us the feeling that we would persevere. There was no division by “civilian” status: conductors, actors, bus drivers, politicians, managers and cleaners—we all became the “resistance movement.”

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How did you end up joining your current unit and going to Donbas? 

At the beginning of April, when the outskirts of Kyiv were liberated, I decided to join the ground forces. Because the threat had not passed. Nothing was happening in music, and I already had some military experience. I transferred to the new Fifth Assault Regiment, where I’m still serving. I was put in charge of staffing the regiment, so I interviewed a lot of people. That’s when I found several musicians who had joined the army. We’re still friends, and we have an informal “music club” made up of soldiers in the Fifth Assault Regiment. 

In the summer of 2022, our unit entered the zone of active hostilities in Donbas. I ended up here too. My career progressed and I was appointed chief press officer of the regiment. My job consists of admitting and accompanying journalists to the firing positions of our combat units. I’m also responsible for working with the volunteers who are actively helping our units from all over the world.

Is it possible for you to listen to music at all right now, and if so, what kind?

Of course, music is not going anywhere. My friend, composer Vlad Solodovnykov, and I are always in touch. And although he left for Germany, we still talk constantly. Recently, he wrote a piano concerto called “Concerto from The Lost Souls,” dedicated to the events in the city of Bucha. He also wrote two movements for a Requiem, a Lacrimosa and a Requiem Aeternam, based on impressions from the war. Right now, we’re in the process of composing the battle hymn for our unit, to the words of Taras Shevchenko: “Борітеся – поборете вам Бог помогає,” or, “Fight – and you will win, God helps you.” 

I also talk to my friend, the Italian composer Gabriele Denaro, as often as possible. He has also dedicated a piano concerto to Ukraine. For me personally, this composition is very majestic and beautiful. I dream of conducting it as soon as I have the opportunity. In January 2023, the Lviv National Philharmonic invited me to conduct the closing program of the Bach Contemporary Festival, but, unfortunately, the operational situation did not allow me to leave my unit. 

In the evenings I manage to listen thoughtfully and leisurely to symphonic music. I finally listened to Mahler’s complete works. I always turn to Bach, it helps activate the brain. With stability there is Bruckner in my playlist. Lately I’ve been turning to Philip Glass, imagining how I would conduct his operas. Bach and Mahler, who I listened to 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and now, are completely “different” composers [at each point in time]; I get different effects and emotions from listening to them. 

When I was very young, I paid attention to Bach’s spectacular preludes and toccatas and Mahler’s original instrumentation; now I’m discovering the aesthetic qualities of the fugues I used to think were boring, of the incredibly long “Passions,” of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” and “Das Lied von der Erde.” In the conditions we’re living in now, the classics become a place of refuge. They are a shelter from harsh realities, a distraction from a rather bleak and sometimes terrifying reality.


Do you imagine returning to your old life?

Yes, I imagine it constantly. But I understand that it is not quite possible yet. Unfortunately. My native Kharkiv Symphony Orchestra “Slobozhansky” is currently in Poland on an open-ended tour. I want to see them. Maybe I’ll go to Poland when I’m on leave and conduct the compositions written during the war that I mentioned.

My orchestra in Kyiv is also waiting for me. We’re planning to continue our light-and-music orchestral shows, which we called “Organums.” It’s a series of concerts of popular music reinterpreted for ensemble performance, with chamber orchestra and organ.

I imagine meeting the orchestras I’ve worked with in Lviv, Rivne, and Khmelnytski again. I hope that after the war I won’t have the time and the occasion to remember the dark times. I’ll try to dive back into making music. I’m thinking about making a series of stock recordings of Ukrainian music; I’m especially interested in the work of the Ukrainian composer Viktor Kosenko. I have a series of symphonic arrangements that have never been performed before and could become a worthy addition to the Ukrainian repertoire for symphony orchestras around the world.

How have your views on life and music changed since the beginning of the war?

I think anyone’s views change when you realize that life can end at any moment. When shells and rockets are constantly exploding several hundred meters from you and bullets are flying… I didn’t think anyone would need this experience in the 21st century, but now we have it. That’s why I live by the principle of enjoying every moment. Positivity and humor are an affordable remedy for constant stress.

For me, music is an aesthetic and an arrangement of sound that provides the kinds of emotions and feelings that help us to live in this reality. The sound of war is the sound of disorder and chaos that brings death and fear. That is why I am against the aestheticization of war: That should only be a warning, a reminder of what should not exist. ¶

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Julia Nikolaevskaya is a professor at the Institute for Music Analysis at the Kharkiv National University of Arts I. P. Kotlyarevsky.