On November 26, the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (YsOU) performed a concert titled “A Night for Ukraine” at the Konzerthaus in Berlin. Supported by the Goethe Institut and the YsOU’s German counterpart, the Federal Youth Orchestra of Germany, the event had patriotic trappings, with blue and yellow light projected on the back of the stage and the call-and-response of “Sláva Ukraini, Heróyam sláva!” during the applause. The orchestra performed works by Bach, Ravel, Myroslav Skoryk, Mykola Lysenko, Anatoliy Kos-Anatolsky, and others, with a minute of silence for the anniversary of the Holodomor man-made famine of 1932–1933.
Despite the national specificity of the concert, it was difficult for me, as a former member of a youth orchestra, to escape the feeling that I could easily have been on that stage, performing in exile from a war-torn country—had I been born later and elsewhere. Though my youth orchestra was a world away in Boston, the YsOU’s performance was full of familiar sense-memories: The slightly piercing A of a young oboe player, the musicians admiring the concert hall as they walked on stage, the smell of food cooked in massive batches in the cafeteria. The specific way a youth orchestra plays too loud sometimes—without arrogance, simply carried away by the sheer joy of making sound with others.
I had spoken with members of the YsOU in March 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion. Most of them were still in Ukraine. Now, many of the musicians are settled elsewhere in Europe, studying at conservatories and adjusting to new lives. For this story, I spoke with four musicians from the orchestra, three whom I interviewed in March, about leaving their homes, reuniting with their friends, and their plans to return.
City: Linz, Austria
The lives of us musicians—of everybody who moved to Europe from Ukraine—have changed completely. Everyday things like buying food and cooking are different. I had to get the documentation together so I could start my Bachelor’s, I had to get my Austrian residence permit. I had to find a place to live and figure out how to get money.
We left Ukraine in March. My mother and I went to Kraków, Poland. We stayed there for a while while I looked for a place in Linz. Then my mother decided to go back to Lviv, in Ukraine, because, luckily, she still has work there. It was more comfortable for her to be in Ukraine. Physically, it’s dangerous to be in Ukraine, but mentally, it’s much easier for a lot of people. My father is staying in Kyiv, because he also has work there and he can help support us.
When I went to Poland, I left all my instruments in Kyiv. I just brought my sticks and my mallets with me in a small case.
I’m learning German intensively now. I’m learning about Austrian history, but also about Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language. Knowing English, German, and Ukrainian would be ideal.
I played on the YsOU’s summer project in August. Seeing the others for the first time in person since the war started, it was like a big weight fell from me. In Austria, I was not thinking about physical problems: The biggest problems were missing my friends and being alone. My friends are 400 kilometers away from me, in other countries. I was so happy to see everyone again. We weren’t in Ukraine, but we were together.
I want to go back to Ukraine. I want to finish studying, and then go back to Ukraine when we win the war. As an artist, I want to work for the culture of Ukraine. We can help rebuild the system. I’ve learned a lot of things in Austria, and I can use what I’ve learned to make the Ukrainian reality better. I don’t want to just stay in Europe: I would feel empty. Those of us who left will have lots of knowledge that we can use to build up Ukrainian culture.
Instrument: Orchestra manager, violin
City: Würzburg, Germany
The YsOU started its tour in the middle of June and was together until the middle of September, before the most recent concerts in Berlin and Paris. It was very important that we were together, that we were making music. We found a lot of possibilities for our musicians to stay in Europe, to study or to live with a host family. We supported them as much as we could.
Maybe the highest number of our musicians are in Germany now. But there are also people in England, Poland, Slovenia, Belgium, even Finland and Sweden. On this tour, we also have five people who came from Ukraine to play with us. Male players over the age of 18 need a special exemption from the Ministry of Defense to go abroad.
We’re really tired of this war. Now everyone understands that it won’t be over soon. It’s complicated, but we have also gotten stronger. We’re staying together. It’s a new reality; we are getting used to the war.
All the musicians are safe for now. Some people lost their homes—their apartments or houses were bombed. Some people lost their instruments. Of course, a lot of fathers, brothers, and uncles of the musicians are on the front lines now. I can’t say they’re OK, but they’re surviving.
We’ve grown together as a big family. The orchestra members still communicate often, but they’re also adjusting to their new countries and making new friends—the simple things. It’s hard to change everything from one day to the next. Many people still miss Ukraine so much.
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City: Graz, Austria
It wasn’t very difficult to adjust to life in Graz. My grandmother and her sister live here, I have family here. It was more difficult for other people who had to start new lives in another city and another country, who had nothing. Of course, I cried a lot at the beginning. I didn’t understand what to do or how to live. But my family was near me.
I saw the other members of the orchestra for the first time since the war broke out in April in Berlin. It was sad to see them, since we realized that it was because of these circumstances that we were there. But it was good that they are all safe, and that we could meet and play music.
We talked a lot about how we managed to leave Ukraine, and about who stayed there. A lot of our parents and friends stayed. A lot of my friends stayed in Dnipro, where I’m from. Dnipro is still under Ukrainian control. There are rocket attacks, and it’s dangerous in a way, but at least it’s not occupied by the Russians.
I think I grew up a lot. If I’d stayed in Kyiv, I had plans, my teacher had plans for me. We didn’t know we’d all be in different parts of the world.
City: Graz, Austria
The day before the war, I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t know why. There was no indication that a war was about to start.
Now we’re in a safe place, but you’re afraid to ask your friends how they are doing, because each of them has a terrifying story of how they escaped to Europe. I was studying in Poland before the war, so I wasn’t affected as much. But on the first day of the war, I went to the border and was helping with logistics. I helped people, but from the other side.
The concert in Berlin was brilliant. It was really symbolic, and it was important that we played with Nataliia Stets. She’s a young conductor: We saw her developing during the summer tour and in the few months since. It was nice to see my colleagues who found their place in Europe, even though they can’t be in Ukraine right now. It’s important to feel calm about your friends—to know that they’re in a good place. Playing together made us feel free from the news, it creates a special atmosphere.
I’m in Graz now preparing for my entrance examinations for the Kunstuniversität Graz. But I already want to go back to Ukraine: to see my home, to see my father who has been there the whole time. With my experience in Europe, I can go back to Ukraine and give masterclasses and share my experience about playing the trumpet.
In April, we also played a concert in Berlin, around when Bucha was liberated. Before the concert, we saw all the photos. But we know how to cope with these emotions now. As a musician on stage, showing emotion can affect the quality of your playing. If you’re crying on stage, you will not be heard as a musician; you’ll be heard as a person. But our mission is for people to hear us through our music. ¶
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