the duo reviving a macabre Ukrainian masterpiece

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At the National Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw, violinist Joshua Bell and conductor Dalia Stasevska have the intense mission of making the first bars of a concert perfect. The work begins with a series of exposed woodwind chords, from which emerges a declamatory flourish from the violin that fades into a lyrical phrase so intimate and silent that it takes your breath away. The musicians are recording the piece, so the passage is repeated over and over again, then critiqued and the best adjustments made.

One could hardly believe that the young Ukrainian orchestra, which brings such disciplined passion to its work, had spent nine hours queuing to cross the Polish border the day before, nor that it had to face the grim reality of a full war for the last two years, nor that they were dealing with the heartbreaking fact that one of their trumpet players, Maryan Hadzetskyy, is missing in action.

We played Ukrainian music before the war, but now the list of works is becoming very long.

But the stakes are high for everyone on stage. The violin concerto is by the virtually forgotten Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann. The musicians of the International Lviv Symphony Orchestra (INSO-Lviv) make their first commercial recording since its premiere in 1943. They will then perform it at a concert of Ukrainian and Polish music in Warsaw. The timing of this wartime resurrection has its own irony, as de Hartmann’s klezmer-inflected score was deeply influenced by his anguish over the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and especially the fate of its Jewish citizens.

Bell is passionately in love with this new addition to his repertoire. “This is one of the great works of the 20th century,” he tells me. He very much wants to perform it with Stasevska and the New York Philharmonic; perhaps, he muses, combining it with Barber’s concerto, which premiered a couple of years earlier.

Bell says he loves the way the piece is proportioned, with its concise, thrillingly demonic ending preceded by an unusual, vignette-like movement reminiscent of “a violinist wandering the war-torn Ukrainian steppes, playing his macabre and sad songs”, while Olga, De Hartmann’s wife, once wrote. The work, with its vivid, almost visual sensibility, and its habit of “cutting” between musical scenes, is “cinematic,” he says.

Indeed, in the course of his extraordinarily eventful life – which took him from northeastern Ukraine to study with Rimsky-Korsakov in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, to Munich and a friendship with Kandinsky, to a wartime encounter that changed him life with the mystic and spiritual leader George Gurdjieff, to Tbilisi in the 1920s, to Paris during World War II and finally to the United States, where he died in 1956. De Hartmann also wrote film scores.

“He managed to create something immediately accessible,” Bell says of the piece. “It has beautiful melodies but it is also incredibly interesting: there are complex and unusual harmonies and it is full of surprises. “You think you know where it’s going but you don’t, and that’s something that applies to all good music.”

For the orchestra and for the Finnish-Ukrainian Stasevska, however, there is another element at play, in addition to the discovery of what she also considers a forgotten masterpiece. The work – as well as other Ukrainian pieces that the orchestra is preparing to play in Warsaw – represents a discovery and an affirmation of a classical Ukrainian musical heritage that is only now, in the face of Russia’s full-scale invasion of its country, beginning to be fully realized. .

Russian classical music is not performed in Ukraine at the moment

Stasevska and I first met in 2022, when she was directing INSO-Lviv in her hometown in western Ukraine, a rare visit by a director from outside the country to work with Ukrainian musicians. The atmosphere, after the lightning counterattack in September, was optimistic. The lobby of the Lviv Philharmonic was packed with boxes of essential medicines and supplies for the front line. Stasevska, who had been fundraising with her two younger brothers, had traveled in a truck with humanitarian aid from Finland.

That evening’s program of music by mostly living Ukrainian composers, including Yevhen Stankovych, Valentin Silvestrov and Bohdana Frolyak, was enthusiastically received. It was the first time the orchestra performed much of the music. “We played Ukrainian music before the war, but perhaps more regular repertoire,” recalls first violinist Olena Kravets. “Now the list of works is getting very long.”

Born in kyiv, Stasevska moved to Estonia when she was little. When she was five years old, her family fled the Soviet Union to Finland with little more than the clothes on their backs. Her father and grandmother, artists, created a bubble of Ukrainian culture: Gogol stories were read aloud; folk songs; Ukrainian is spoken at home. She says of De Hartmann’s concerto: “It has melodies that sound like popular songs that I think I almost know.”

He studied violin and then viola at the Sibelius Academy in Finland. However, after seeing a woman on the podium for the first time, he realized that his obsessive reading of sheet music and his conviction that the symphony orchestra was “the greatest musical instrument humanity has ever created” might actually , perhaps, mean a future as an orchestra conductor. The first time he took the baton, joining the master class of the famous Finnish conducting teacher Jorma Panula, “it was the most exciting thing I did in my entire life.”

Now, at 39 years old and with a three-month-old baby she is breastfeeding as we speak, her career is flourishing. In the UK she is known as the charismatic principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who conducted the first night of the Proms last year. In the United States, she was named a New York Times “breakout star” of 2023. In Finland, she is chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

When planning that concert in October 2022, he thought, with his Finnish side, about how resonant Sibelius is as a bearer of the identity of his adopted country; how profound is the power of works like the overture to him Finland in difficult times – “when you cannot express yourself. But with music, everyone feel he”.

In a context where Vladimir Putin has explicitly framed the invasion of Ukraine as a war for culture and identity, Stasevska felt the urgent need to help bring to light a half-hidden Ukrainian musical history that is there to be rediscovered – Despite the immense damage done by the Russian mir [the Russian cultural-political space] for centuries: the Ukrainian composers who were sent to the gulag, those whose scores were never published, those whose music was destroyed or lost.”

He tells me about Vasyl Barvinsky, who spent a decade in the gulag starting in 1948. His scores “were burned in the backyard of the Lviv Philharmonic Hall.” Upon his release, he spent the remaining five years of his life trying to reconstruct his lost music. “I thought, ‘As long as we keep playing Ukrainian music, it can’t be destroyed now.’”

At the moment, Russian classical music is not performed in Ukraine. Kravets, the orchestra’s violinist, tells me that the last concert INSO-Lviv gave before the invasion included Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and a Tchaikovsky symphony. But she doesn’t miss these composers, he says, while there is a lot of Ukrainian music that needs to be given its place.

Ukrainian musicians speak of the damage caused not only by the direct suppression of composers under the Soviets, but also by the assumption that truly great art emanated only from the imperial center, from Moscow and St. Petersburg. “Peripheral” Ukraine was considered the home of a folk and home culture that was essentially inferior. Or, Ukraine’s greatest artists – for example, the painters Kazimir Malevich and Ilya Repin – were absorbed into the center and generally called “Russians.”

A provocative question might be, however, whether De Hartmann – born in Ukraine, educated in St. Petersburg, internationally nomadic by circumstances – was more or less Ukrainian than, say, the composer Prokofiev, who is generally considered Russian even though he was born in village of Sontsovka in the Ukrainian Donetsk region. Or even Stravinsky, who had a Cossack heritage.

Kravets agrees that the issue is not simple. “Perhaps the right way to present De Hartmann is in light of his Ukrainian origins before the Russians got their hands on him, as they did with other composers,” he suggests. Bell is cautious: he doesn’t like to think of De Hartmann as what he calls “tokenized” as a simply “Ukrainian” composer. “I don’t want to be marginalized like that,” he says.

These issues are complex and identity is never singular. I think of Sergei Parajanov, the great director of Soviet-era films, including The Color of Pomegranates, who once remarked: “I am an Armenian, born in Tbilisi, imprisoned in a Russian prison for being a Ukrainian nationalist.” But these are the problems facing Ukraine in the midst of a terrifying existential invasion. The sheer energy of today’s engagement with the question of what it means to be Ukrainian – expressed through attitudes toward language and history, through literature, art and music – is an ironic offshoot of Putin’s desire to reclaim and absorb the country. Where this leads will be determined in the months and years to come.

Meanwhile, the power of works like De Hartmann’s violin concerto is irresistible. As the war casts her shadow ever deeper, Stasevska says: “There is a great contrast between light and darkness in Ukraine. Music is the light for me. “It makes me believe in goodness and humanity.”

• Joshua Bell’s recording of De Hartmann’s violin concerto with Dalia Stasevska and INSO-Lviv will be released in the summer. The Warsaw concert, including Bell’s performance of the De Hartmann concerto, will be broadcast on on January 28.

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