Art as a weapon: Ukraine’s musicians fight at frontline of culture

In cities such as Odesa and Lviv, composers and players engage in proud and articulate defiance in formal venues and on street corners, their work touching hearts and minds, and bolstering the spirits of citizenry and soldiers

A giant chandelier glitters far above us, scenes from Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays adorn the ceiling, and the red velvet seats in the tiered boxes are suitably plush. The 19th-century Odesa Opera and Ballet Theatre is the emblem of the city, and tonight it is celebrating the contemporary Ukrainian composer Olexander Rodin and the survival of art against the odds.

This strategic port city is surrounded by checkpoints, swimming is forbidden due to the risk of mines, the port was hit a few nights ago and the famous Potemkin Steps are off-limits. But inside this gilded universe, the announcement when we take our seats is the only clue that anything is happening at all.

“If there is an air alert, you are asked to go calmly to the shelter underneath the theatre. You can also choose to exit the theatre by the main door. If the air alert ends within one hour, the concert will resume.”

A group of Ukrainian soldiers files in, posing for selfies to remember their unusual evening off.


Ludmila Sergiychuk is the curator and host of the theatre’s project to promote the New Music of Ukraine.

“Ukrainian art is currently opening up many unique facets of our culture – melodies, colours, symbolism,” she says. “It’s the art of revival, responding to the challenges of the time and reflecting the reality Ukraine is experiencing during a state of war. We’re determined to keep performing, including premieres and events like this, to give everyone an opportunity to breathe the oxygen of art.”

The highlight of the evening is an extract from the modern opera Kateryna, based on a work by Ukraine’s beloved national poet Taras Shevchenko. Written by Rodin, it tells the story of a young girl betrayed by a Russian soldier in the 19th century. The parallels are clear.

The original premiere was delayed by Covid and then by the invasion. Cast and staff members switched to filling sandbags on Odesa’s beaches to protect the theatre, some volunteered to fight. Later many of the rehearsals took place under threat of air raids.

The production draws on many aspects of Ukrainian culture, including polyphonic singing, and features new instruments made to mimic the sounds of nature. In one of the scenes we are transported to a traditional village solstice celebration where villagers jump through fire. It’s powerful, immersive and, unsurprisingly, tragic.

The audience gives the performance and its composer, Olexander Rodin, a standing ovation, with shouts of Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine). For Rodin, the opera goes beyond art, to reflect the existential struggle of his country.

“The staging of the opera during the full-scale military invasion is a symbol of resistance and the unbreakable spirit of the Ukrainian people,” he says. “It is also a symbol of our faith in victory and the triumph of our independence.”

Tonight’s concert also features a version of Liber Tango, in memory of Yurii Kerpatenko, a conductor shot dead by Russian forces in Kherson. The orchestra’s performance is matched to a haunting black-and-white video projection of Kerpatenko playing the same piece on accordion.

“The whole musical world was shaken by the news that he was shot for refusing to co-operate with the occupiers,” says Sergiychuk. “He was killed, just as our Odesa ballet dancer Rostislav Yanchishen and thousands of the best have been killed.” Yanchishen had swapped his ballet shoes for military boots, volunteering on the first day of the war. One of his most celebrated solo roles was that of a dying soldier in the modern ballet Tyrai (Hold). He was killed in April this year.

Two days later, at the other end of the country, hundreds of people are attending Sunday Mass at Lviv’s many Greek Catholic churches. At the Garrison Church, which hosts a military chaplaincy, and where pictures of dead soldiers line a side chapel, women line up to write prayers for the dead, leaving a few coins for the priests. Elsewhere soldiers grab brunch with their girlfriends, or pick up a coffee as they head to or from leave, kitbag in hand. Young girls sing along with buskers covering old Ukrainian favourites such as Stari Fotografii, or more recent hits by Okean Elzy. Ukrainians, it seems, will sing at any opportunity.

Later, concertgoers mill around outside the Philharmonic Hall in the golden evening light. The city’s orchestra recently returned from a US tour to promote Ukrainian culture. Back home, they are keeping their regular summer series Virtuoso going despite the war. Tonight’s concert is called Prayer, appropriate in the circumstances as rumours swirl that the counter offensive is about to begin.

Inside the orchestra tunes up, and the Italian-American conductor Raffaele Ponti appears to a rapturous reception, the audience clearly appreciating that he made the journey to Ukraine in spite of the risks.

“Of course I had to think about it. My family was worried about it, are still worried about it. My agent said, ‘What? Are you kidding?’ However when you put that aside, it seemed like the right thing to do, to show that it’s okay to be here, that it’s okay to make music here, that it’s okay to continue our lives.”

The orchestra strikes up the opening bars of Finlandia, the great tone poem by Sibelius, written more than a century ago at a time of Russian cultural oppression. Not surprisingly it’s a favourite among the Lviv musicians, including violinist Solomia Onyskiv.

“The people of Finland had some similar history with Russia, and this music has the same character and same spirit as we feel now. It’s very close to our souls to play Finlandia, to show that we care about our country and its independence.”

The war has touched the orchestra directly, with one of its musicians suffering an injury to his hand. “He’s unlikely to ever play again,” says Onyskiv. “But he is alive. A lot of musicians, artists, photographers, some of them people I know, went to the war, and some of them have died.” Her voice falters a little. “This is the price we are paying for the life of our country.”

The orchestra has made a point of reaching out to the many soldiers undergoing rehabilitation in Lviv, inviting them to concerts and workshops. Twenty-year-old volunteer Dmytro lost his right arm three months ago during a Russian attack in eastern Ukraine that killed one of his comrades.

“I come to the concerts, it’s like part of my therapy. I like the sounds, they help me to feel comfortable, to relax,” he says. Legs are easier and cheaper to make than arms, he says, and he is waiting for a prosthesis to be made in Germany. In the meantime, he is sitting his bachelor of psychology exams, typing with only his left hand, and hopes he can support other soldiers when he qualifies. “I don’t try to forget what happened. It’s my life experience. And I think for other guys it will be helpful. My arm is like a symbol of the war. We have a war and we have to finish it.”

The final work is an orchestral arrangement of the Ukrainian composer Valentyn Sylvestrov’s 2014 Prayer for Ukraine, a slow and haunting piece. It brings the audience to their feet. Ponti blows a kiss and points to the ribbon on his jacket in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. By the third encore, he is gesturing playfully to his watch. His work done, he’s off to get the bus to Poland, to make the onward journey to Italy.

“Working with this orchestra all week has been a real joy. The Ukrainian people have touched my heart, with all they’re going through in the war. We see it on TV but to actually be here and sense the rhythm and the feelings of the people…They play with such big hearts.”

Those big hearts extend to helping musicians from occupied territory or from frontline areas like Kharkiv which can no longer stage concerts. “These musicians don’t have any work and they’re not getting paid,” says Tetiana Kostorna, the orchestra’s head of marketing. “So we invite them here to perform with us. We also livestream our concerts and ask for donations on Paypal so that musicians can stay in Ukraine and don’t have to leave the country.”

The city has a rich cultural and architectural heritage and its pre-war tourism slogan was Lviv: Open to the World. For Onyskiv, touring abroad and hosting foreign musicians is an important way to get Lviv and Ukraine’s broader message across. “We want people to know that the whole country is not paralysed by the war, and that we love and support each other. We also want people to know that we are European, and that people here want to live in a civilised world.”

As Ukraine battles to regain its territory, its artists and musicians are fighting on their own frontline, promoting Ukrainian culture and helping maintain international support. Others, like the young soldier Dmytro, who have suffered in war, are finding that music can help their healing. “I even have some classical music on my phone now; Mozart, Schubert, piano music especially. I want this music to be part of my life.”