Making their second stop on a three-week European and American tour, the newly-formed Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra made their Proms appearance with their founder, music director and conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. Having only met as an ensemble for the first time last week, the UFO are a temporary orchestra consisting of Ukrainian musicians who play in ensembles there or further afield. Under Wilson’s stewardship, their aims are simple: to emphasise the struggles of Ukrainian musicians, highlight the cultural life of the war-stricken country and raise money in support of these. The atmosphere in the hall had parallels with that of the Last Night and there was a heartfelt and sincere welcome as the musicians took their places with many in the audience taking to their feet.

Keri-Lynn Wilson and the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The exiled Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov is a contemporary composer we do not hear enough of. Silvestrov’s Symphony no. 7 is a one movement work written in 2002-3. Like Silvestrov’s other works, it juxtaposes consonance and dissonance for a deeply emotional experience. The programme notes comment the work “begins with a cry of pain”, which Wilson and the UFO conveyed strongly. As the dissonance of the harmony resolved, the polished sound of the UFO shone through beautifully. The central section of the symphony contains a rather touching, but cinematic, episode for piano which orchestral pianist Oksana Gorobiyevska played with conviction. The ending of the work was hushed and Wilson held the dignified silence hauntingly and poignantly.

Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto was given an engaging performance from Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova. This no-nonsense rendition was touching from beginning to end. Wilson and Fedorova found the gentle nuances in the music, Wilson making the most of Chopin’s uncomplicated orchestral accompaniment. The three movements were aptly paced, in the first, Maestoso, they both found the majesty, using rubato subtly and allowing Fedorova to bring an air of spontaneity and improvisation to the piano writing. The gentle Larghetto was delicately executed, showcasing the delicate balance in Fedorova’s hands, emphasising the cantabile melody and the beautiful tone high in the piano register. The Allegro vivace was paced aptly and both pianist and conductor mirrored each other’s phrasing to bring a strong sense of unity to the work.  

Anna Fedorova, Keri-Lynn Wilson and the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The words of Beethoven’s aria “Abscheulicher!…Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern” from Fidelio has a strong resonance with the Ukrainian musicians. Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska had a voice and stage presence large enough for the vast space that is the Royal Albert Hall. What Monastyrska lacked in the clarity of diction she made up for in delivery. The horns were extraordinary and Wilson balanced the orchestra fittingly in an impactful rendition.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony completed the programme. The four movements were dutifully measured with string contrasts in mood and phrasing across the work. Wilson conducted  without a score, and it showed that she knows this work intimately. The opening movement began with an air of mystery finding its feet with certainty and the balance of the strings and winds was particularly fine. Central movements were characterful and were faithful to Brahms’ indications. The fourth movement brought contrasting colours and moods, darker and foreboding. An encore followed, a touching and sensitive arrangement of the Ukrainian National Anthem, dignified with a commendable and expressive solo from leader Marko Komonko.

Wilson conducted with poise, dignity and communicative musical prowess. She clearly understood the different styles, colours, textures and timbres of every piece in a satisfying programme. The endurance of the UFO and Wilson was commendable. Playing for two-hours with no interval, they held the audience’s attention with fine orchestral playing and straightforward but polished interpretations, making for a musically and emotionally memorable concert, a befitting musical recognition of the current struggles of the Ukrainian people.