Ukrainian orchestra plays, and freedom rings across the plains of Kansas

March 2, 2023 3:33 am
The Lviv National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine stands as the audience applauds at the Lied Center in Lawrence. Members held aloft a Ukrainian flag and a flag combining the flags of the United States and Ukraine

The Lviv National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine stands as the audience applauds at the Lied Center in Lawrence. Members held aloft a Ukrainian flag and a flag combining the flags of the United States and Ukraine. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

On Monday night at the Lied Center in Lawrence, freedom sounded like a symphony orchestra.

The Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, led by the redoubtable Theodore Kuchar, played one of the last concerts of a 40-date tour across the United States. The century-old ensemble had stopped by Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall along the way, but I’m Kansan enough to believe the Lawrence stop brought something special.

This was a free city in the free state, after all, one where locals bled to stop slavery in its tracks. The Ukrainian people fight for the same principle now. And while the cause may have become controversial for Fox News pundits who parrot Russian propaganda, the nearly 2,000 people in the audience cheered the cause.

“Slava Ukraini!,” one called out at the beginning. Glory to Ukraine.

Today I’m taking a brief break from the fracas in the Kansas Legislature to offer you a virtual concert.

While the Ukrainian orchestra’s performance hasn’t been posted online, the pieces they played can be found easily enough. Using a little imagination, you can sit next to me in the audience, listening to an evening of emotional and spirited music. Together, we can witness dozens of people collaborating to create a detailed, pulsating world of sound. Classical music, far from being some elitist art form, can please a big audience. It certainly did at the Lied Center.

The concert began a few minutes after 7:30 p.m. with Johannes Brahms’ “Tragic Overture,” a short piece named for its twinned turbulence and grief. With the orchestra hailing from a country under daily siege by invaders, those emotions seemed appropriate.

The concert took an upbeat turn with Max Bruch’s first violin concerto, performed by Kyiv-born and raised Vladyslava Luchenko. Full of memorable tunes and fiery fiddling, the piece impressed me with its sheer physicality. The music poured forth, unimpeded by microphones or amplification. All that sound came from wood and metal and horsehair, manipulated by human hands and powered by human lungs.

Midway through the first movement, the audience spontaneously whooped and applauded after one of Luchenko’s slashingly virtuosic passages. She and Kuchar traded a bemused look. Those rowdy Kansans, they seemed to say.

A standing ovation and a bouquet of flowers for the soloist followed. Then everyone took a 20-minute intermission.

The big work on the program was Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony 9, “From the New World.” Written while Dvorak directed the National Conservatory of Music of America and inspired by our country’s folk music, the symphony bursts with memorable tunes and dramatic orchestration. It debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1893 to instantaneous accolades.

After the tempestuous first movement, the audience exploded in applause. Kuchar glanced back at the audience with a smile. You really are here for a good time, he seemed to say. Applause followed every movement, and while that used to be considered a classical music no-no, the Associated Press writes that conductors and musicians have rethought the matter. It certainly made sense in the moment.

A lengthy standing ovation followed the concert proper. Kuchar eventually stepped forward to address the audience, commending the orchestra on its endurance through 40 concerts. He then thanked the United States for its support of Ukraine against Russia and vowed an eventual victory. As a dash of icing to the cake, the orchestra then performed “Chasing the Wind,” a rollicking dance by Ukrainian composer Anatol Kos-Anatolsky.

The war in Ukraine has lasted a little more than a year now. While the country has notched impressive wins against the Russian invaders, the country has depended on the United States and its allies to stay afloat against the onslaught. David has fended off Goliath. But as the orchestra returns to its homeland, much work remains. When peace returns, as it will, reconstruction will require enormous resources.

I have been reluctant during that year to write too much on the topic. I don’t live in Ukraine, and words too often fail when confronted with the dire toll of war. My words can best be directed to smaller issues, those that face residents here in the Sunflower State.

On Monday evening, however, I saw how the fight for freedom resounds no matter where you live and no matter who you are. The same impulse that motivates Ukrainians motivates Kansans who advocate for public education and LGBTQ rights. So many of us yearn to be free of an antagonistic government imposing its will on them and those they hold dear. The stakes for those of us here thankfully don’t often extend to life or death.

Democracy matters. Freedom matters.

As an uninhibited, joyous expression of both, the Lviv orchestra’s music matters too.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.