The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (YsOU) was founded in 2016 with support from German musical institutions and under the artistic direction of the conductor Oksana Lyniv. The orchestra is open to musicians ages 12 to 22, and is free for participants. The ensemble has toured in Germany, Austria, Croatia, and other countries, and planned its first all-Ukrainian tour for summer 2022. The Russian invasion put a violent end to these plans. I spoke with four teenage musicians from the orchestra (identified by their first names for their protection) and the orchestral manager, Alexandra Zaytseva, about the situation on the ground and the small consolations of music in a state of high alert. 


Uliana

Age: 16 
Instrument: Viola
City: Kyiv 

I’m in a shelter. I can’t say exactly where, because it might be dangerous. I spent the last three days here. I’m going to be 17 years old in two weeks. I hope I can celebrate my birthday. 

I couldn’t go on the last YsOU tour because I didn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine in time. I got the first dose two days before the invasion. Now I don’t know when I’ll get the second one. 

I haven’t listened to much music, definitely not much classical music. I played my viola for five minutes yesterday. Just so that my instrument knows it’s OK. My viola was very out of tune; instruments feel. My viola is at home, under my bed. It’s very important to me. It might get damaged, because rockets have been hitting the higher floors of buildings. 

I’m from Dnipro. I came to Kyiv to study music with a different teacher. Dnipro is safer now, there are no Russian troops there. 


Anna

Age: 21
Instrument: Oboe
City: Kharkiv

I play the oboe. But there’s no time to think about music now. We’re trying to figure out how to survive. 

My family and I have been in the bomb shelter for six days. Every morning, explosions wake us up. 

Kharkiv has been turned into a living hell. Corpses have been lying on the street, unburied, for two days now. Schools, colleges, hospitals and other buildings are burning. Innocent people are dying. Many of my friends no longer have their homes. 

We do not know when this will end, but we hope that the Russians will leave our land.

Anna, age 21, plays the oboe in a bomb shelter in Kharkiv.

Yehor

Age: 17
Instrument: Percussion 
City: Kyiv 

I live in Kyiv, but my family is ten miles outside the city. It was very dangerous there. The place was burned to the ground. My family and my friends sent me photos. The Russians hit everything: homes, schools, hospitals. My family is alive, but they don’t have electricity or water. They can’t move to another city because the roads have been badly damaged. There’s no way to get to west Ukraine. 

We heard air sirens a couple times today. It’s normal now. We keep together. Ukrainians have never been so united. Everybody helps. I gave all the stuff I found in my home to the volunteers.

I spend my nights underground to stay safe, but it’s pretty comfortable. We turn on the heat and have electricity. You talk with people a lot. You communicate. 

I’ve been in the YsOU since 2019. In August, we played a concert of Ukrainian music: music from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, from all different parts of Ukrainian culture. We planned to travel around Ukraine playing that program. I heard beautiful Ukrainian music that I didn’t know before. Now I know that Ukraine has such an important culture. 

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This orchestra changed my life. So much that I can’t express it in words. Now, in this terrible situation, we communicate every day–every hour. It’s a special community. We became really close friends. I can’t wait to play again. None of us can. 

I have a couple instruments at home, but usually I practice at the National Music Academy. We can’t practice there now, so I try to practice at home. In the first days of the invasion, it was really hard to practice. I spent all my time reading news to know what to expect for the next hour, for the next 15 minutes. But now the situation is more comprehensible. I practiced a little bit yesterday. To relax. You read the news 24/7, but that’s terrible for the brain. 

I have friends in the Kharkiv Symphony Orchestra. My best friend made it to Poland, the others are sheltering underground. In Kharkiv, they are only thinking about survival. 


Alexandra Zaytseva 

Age: 24
Instrument: Orchestra manager, violin
City: Würzburg, Germany 

I’m in constant contact with our young musicians. We talk maybe ten times a day, to make sure nobody is hurt. I feel horrible. I haven’t slept. I’ve been following the news or talking with journalists. Trying to stay in contact with the orchestra and with my family in Kyiv. My little brother is ten years old. My whole life is still in Ukraine. I feel like I’m there–not physically, but mentally. It really hurts to see the photos and videos and to speak to my parents. My mother cries.

We see our orchestra as a family. We really care about kind communication. Everybody is friends with everybody. When musicians age out of the orchestra, they stay friends. 

In August 2021 we played in Mariupol. It’s almost completely in ruins now. I don’t know if there’s anything left of Mariupol. 

I’m a violinist. I haven’t been able to play music at all. But I’m proud of our musicians who take their instruments to the shelters. They are trying to practice. I know that music stays with us, and we stay with music. But now it’s hard to express anything in music, because we also have no words to describe what has happened. 

The YsOU during a recording session in 2019 • Photo © Serhiy Horobets

Varvara

Age: 18
Instrument: Violin
City: Kyiv

We get so many messages about attacks and hear so many alarms that we don’t really react emotionally anymore. We hide in our hallway. We sleep in the hallway too, on mattresses. We are kind of safe there, in case of attack. Yesterday, there was another air attack, and Russian forces targeted a building about two miles away from me. There was a big hole in the house, and people died. Any information about the Russian army only targeting strategic sites or soldiers is bullshit. 

"It’s hard to express anything in music, because we also have no words to describe what has happened." The musicians of the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine search for normalcy in wartime. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

One evening, I played my violin in the hallway of my building. We don’t use lights in the evening, so it was a bit dark. Any light can be dangerous, because it helps the Russian army target their rockets. 

I did a livestream, playing the first two movements of a Bach sonata and of a Ysaÿe sonata. I didn’t play the first day of the invasion at all. On the second day, I decided to play a little bit for myself to calm down. And to not forget how to play the violin. It distracts me from my thoughts. I thought, Maybe I can be helpful by doing what I can do. People are volunteering, defending themselves with guns and Molotov cocktails. I can’t do that. But I can spread information, and I can play the violin. 

I want to study music in Germany. I hope this war will end soon. Of course, not just because I want to apply to university. [Laughs.] But because I want to grow up. 

Some of my friends from the orchestra are in Kharkiv, where the situation is much worse. One of my friend’s fathers was imprisoned by the Russian army. 

I even tried to do some small cyber war. [Laughs.] About the situation with Gergiev in Munich, I saw some comments like, “What does art have to do with politics? He’s just a conductor.” I tried to kindly explain that art has a lot to do with politics. I am an artist; I play violin. I have no choice. I can’t choose whether to be involved in politics or not. I just am. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.

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