With the war in Ukraine now in its third month, many musicians are still trapped in the country. Two string players who left in the nick of time reflect on their experiences – and how we can help
On 25 March, Valeriy Sokolov got into his car and fled Ukraine. With him sat the cellist Alexei Shadrin and six young student musicians. In a few days they would reach the north-west German city of Hanover and safety – a return, effected through diplomatic channels, that Sokolov later describes as ‘a miracle’. For over a month they had been living in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and the nearby village of Svaliava. Sokolov had returned to his homeland on 20 February from a concert in Iceland to perform Scheherazade with INSO, the Symphony Orchestra of Lviv National Philharmonic. The lyrical escapism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s lush score was soon to be set into stark contrast against the brutality of war. Less than a week after the concert, Ukraine was invaded by Russian troops. ‘By 25 February, transport from east to west had become virtually impossible,’ explains Sokolov. ‘Various bridges on a main connecting highway had been bombed, and panic and queues were huge.’ So, instead of returning to his home in the bombarded city of Kharkiv, Sokolov remained in and around Lviv, joined by a growing contingent of Ukrainians fleeing the east of the country that included a large cohort of musicians. ‘The whole musical community began coming to the area,’ recalls Sokolov, ‘and we began to see a musical Ukrainian exile in the west of the country. All these artists we knew from other towns: professors, musicians, orchestral leaders. They all ended up in one area.’
One of those musicians was the Ukrainian violinist Aleksey Semenenko, who had escaped the city of Kyiv aboard an evening train on 25 February. ‘I arrived in Kyiv on the 20th, although my wife was absolutely encouraging me not to go,’ he explains. ‘Air travel back to Germany had already been cancelled, so I knew I had a one-way ticket and would somehow need to get out of the country. But of course I did not count on what happened afterwards.’ Semenenko performed Mozart’s sublime Concerto K218 with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine on the 23rd, addressing the expectant and anxious listeners. ‘I greeted the audience, telling them that in those unstable times I wanted to support them. There was a special atmosphere in the hall and everybody was thankful. I was due to give masterclasses over the next three days. The organiser called me at 7.50am the following morning, saying that many airports were being bombarded and the masterclasses had been cancelled. I could not believe it was happening. Everybody’s intention, from that moment on, was to get out of the capital. However, the day passed so quickly that when it got dark I decided to stay. The next evening, I escaped by train to Lviv, miraculously buying a ticket online.’..
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