“It started out as a regular two-week tour to Italy on 23rd February.” Anatolii Vasylkovskii sounds exhausted when I talk to him. “That's why we already had visas to leave the country.” On 24th February, Russian troops invaded Ukraine and the world forever changed for Anatolii, violist, Artistic Director and manager of the Ukrainian national chamber ensemble known as Kyiv Soloists, and his fellow musicians. 

The Kyiv Soloists with Benny Andersson in Stockholm at the Charity Concert for Ukraine
© Yanan Li

“When we arrived in Italy, many of our members phoned their families and heard that there had been bombings.” In an instant, the focus of their tour changed. “We have to spread the message that Ukrainians are peaceful people,” Anatolii emphasises. For this reason, he and his fifteen colleagues continue to tour and play to this day, relying on the solidarity of many other European ensembles and orchestras that are hosting them in their concert halls and homes, as this unplanned extended tour continues across Europe. “We want to dedicate these concerts to our families, our country, our army, which are now fighting for the democracy of the whole world.”

Theirs is a message of peace and solidarity with the people of Ukraine and of love for the families and friends they have left behind. Overnight, they have decided to make the tour a fundraiser: “Concerts for Ukraine, Concerts for Peace” or “The tour of pain” as an Italian newspaper dubbed it. Originally, their Italian promoter had concerts lined up for them in cities such as Naples, Matera, Sorrento, Torre del Lago, all culminating in Rome at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. These were all changed into charity concerts, with the entire ticket income – plus many spontaneous donations – going to the Red Cross. The response was heartwarming and the concerts sold out fast. Many local radio stations and newspapers promoted them with this new message. The performances were no longer only aiming to be events of cultural exchange and musical enjoyment: they were a form of activism. “Our music-making is now a prayer for peace” says Anatolii. “If politicians try to promote peace through diplomatic ways, we try to do so in the cultural space”.  

Thanks to modern communication, the Ukrainan musicians are in touch with family and friends, and are kept up to date with what is happening back home. But this knowledge does not help to soothe their worries. On the contrary, the feeling of helplessness – and often hopelessness – is overwhelming. “It is very difficult for us to make music on stage in this moment,” Anatolii tells me. “Our hearts are back in our country, with our families.” 

It's not a surprise that these heartfelt sentiments translate into very poignant music-making, underscoring their expressive and poetic style and evoking the audience’s collective memories – personal, or heard from family members – of all those conflicts of the not too distant past. This music is drawing tears from both performers and listeners.

The Kyiv Soloists at Gothenburg Concert Hall for the benefit concert
© Francis Löfvenholm

The Kyiv Soloists ensemble is the brainchild of preeminent Ukrainian violinist and teacher Bogodar Kotorovych (1941-2009). Its members come from all parts of Ukraine and many have won national and international competitions. Their repertoire covers both classical Ukrainian and international compositions, as well as contemporary works. The ensemble prides itself in having premiered in their home country works by Benjamin Britten, George Palmer, Erkki-Sven Tüür and many others. They have a well-established history of tours to international festivals around the world, including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, France, Italy and more.

After their latest Italian tour was over, and faced with no option of returning home, all the members of the chamber ensemble agreed that their mission was now to raise awareness – and funds. “We can't play concerts in our country, but here we can still play. Here we can do more,” Anatolii tells me. That meant organising benefit concerts in quick succession, and on the spur of the moment. Not only Anatolii, in his capacity as ensemble manager, but all members were asked to call upon any possible useful contact in the music industry. Thankfully, the response from promoters was very quick and positive. Concerts followed in Switzerland, with the Kammerorchester Basel, then Germany, for concerts in Regensburg and Saarbrücken. Local organisations got in touch with radio and television stations, who set up broadcasts of the concerts and ran fundraising campaigns for either the Red Cross or other reputable charitable organisations with direct contacts to Ukraine.

The programme of the concerts is of course meaningful, as they mainly play works by Ukrainian composers: Valentin Silvestrov's Evening Serenade, Maxim Berezovsky's Symphony in C, Aleksandr Shymko's Dreams of an old forest, and the Ukrainian folk song Plyne Kacha, but their programme also includes Paul Hindemith Trauermusik and Mendelssohn's 10th Symphony. 

“We want to show the unique culture of Ukraine and that there's no reason for war,” Anatolii says.

The Kyiv Soloists had already been named Ambassadors for Ukrainian Culture in the World by the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and currently, with their “Concerts for Peace” they are truly giving meaning to this title. 

The Kyiv Soloists at Gothenburg Concert Hall for the benefit concert
© Francis Löfvenholm

Among the many people helping them on this challenging journey, Anatolii is tremendously thankful to Liana Ruokyté-Jonsson, president of the Stockholm office of the EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture) and the cultural attaché for Sweden, Finland and Denmark. 

She heard of the Kyiv Soloists' plight and made it her personal goal to organise for them a tour to the Scandinavian countries in no time at all. Through her contacts and determination, in only 24 hours she was able to secure them guest performances at Konserthuset Stockholm, home to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, get the support of Sweden's largest daily newspaper – the Dagens Nyheter – and have also pianist Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame), the Eric Ericson's Chamber Choir and Adolf Fredrik's Music Classes all contribute their participation in a concert on 27th March. In attendance to the event were also King Gustav and Queen Silvia of Sweden, showing their support for the Concert for Peace effort, and the event was also telecast on Swedish television channel SVT1. On the day, the Kyiv Soloists played a programme of Ukrainian classical and folk music, as well as an arrangement of Swedish patriotic song Värmeland du sköna (beautiful, warm land). Once again, all ticket revenue went to charity, in this case the Swedish Radio Aid's “Help for Ukraine” fund.  

Ruokyté-Jonsson's efforts did not stop with this high-profile Stockholm concert. On the contrary, this was just the beginning, as she took it upon herself to organise additional events. Concerts followed in Upsalla, Vara and Gothenburg, including some with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali. 

After this round of Swedish concerts, the Kyiv Soloists are now travelling to Norway, for early April appearances in Oslo and Bergen. Vilnius in Lithuania will be next, followed by four concerts in various cities including Kaunas, this year's European Capital of Culture. On the 16th of April the Ensemble will travel to Latvia, with a first concert in the new Jurmala Concert Hall on 18th April, followed by Riga, in a performance that is expected to be attended by the President of Latvia. 

Ruokyté-Jonsson is working tirelessly on adding more concerts, with the end of the month seeing the ensemble heading to Estonia, although dates and venues are still to be defined. More Norwegian dates will follow, this time to the northern cities of Trondheim, Bodo, and Tromsø. “I had no relatives in Ukraine, but now I have fifteen,” she tells me, “and all of them say: now you are our mum, a member of our family!”

Although all the time and effort that goes into organising, logistics and performing is very exhausting, all the musicians agree that the incredible outpouring of sympathy and empathy from the audiences who attend the concerts is tremendously energising and reassuring. “We had no idea that our listeners had such big hearts,” says Anatolii. 

The Kyiv Soloists perform at the Charity Concert for Ukraine at Konserthuset Stockholm
© Yanan Li

The Kyiv Soloists are not the only artists caught unaware in this uncertain situation. Members of the Kyiv City Ballet had also left Ukraine on a two-week tour to France in February and are now facing an equally uncertain future. Thankfully, the French government has extended their visas and the administration of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris has helped them find accommodation and welcomed them to use their facilities for their daily training. 

What does the future hold? Political uncertainties aside, it is again Ruokyté-Jonsson who has the answers: she is now talking with a couple of municipalities in Norway to arrange for long-term accommodations, so that the members of the ensemble might have a base of operations until returning to Ukraine will become possible. 

Through their instruments and passion for music, the Kyiv Soloists have reached the hearts of fellow ensembles and audiences across Europe, who have demonstrated great empathy and a genuine desire to help.

Click here to see the upcoming concerts of the Kyiv Soloists.