Review: National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, St George’s Hall, Bradford, Thursday, October 26, 2023

THE National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine’s current tour of 17 British cities takes place in circumstances very different to their last UK visit over 20 years ago.

Even the journey here and the return to their war ravaged homeland is fraught with danger. A ban on flights in Ukraine airspace necessitates a difficult coach journey of 20 hours through the war zone, across the border with Poland and onwards to Warsaw. From here the 83 musicians, plus orchestra touring staff were flown to London, courtesy of British Airways.

The Orchestra has been giving morale boosting summer concerts in Kyiv’s beautiful Lysenko Column Hall. Ticket sales are however limited to 150 so that everybody can fit into the air raid shelter underneath the hall whenever necessary. Members of the violin section then play Bach sonatas to the audience until it is safe to emerge from the shelter. Rehearsals are likewise subject to air raid sirens warning of an impending air strike, drone or missile attack.

The National Symphony Orchestra’s repertoire on this tour is designed to chime with the feelings of the people. A sombre atmosphere of mourning for the men, women and children killed, combined with unwavering determination and defiance in the face of the invader. Every member of the orchestra has lost family and friends in the fight for freedom.

Bruch’s beloved Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor became an elegy for the fallen last Thursday evening in St George’s Hall. Aleksey Semenenko’s exquisitely nuanced performance was balanced by the blazing intensity of the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko, its artistic director and chief conductor since 1999. Semenenko delighted the audience with two encores for solo violin: Bach’s Sarabande in D minor and a Serenade by Valentin Sylvestrov.

Sirenko and his orchestra wonderfully captured the dramatic sweep and momentum of the evening’s main work, the dark hued Symphony No 1 in E minor by Sibelius. Grazhyna, a Symphonic Picture for large orchestra by Boris Lyatoshynsky, often described as the godfather of Ukrainian composers had opened the programme.

An enthusiastic audience, including members of West Yorkshire’s Ukrainian communities and their children, waved the familiar yellow and blue Ukrainian flag clamoured for more. The orchestra duly obliged with the Farewell Waltz and the rousing Overture to the opera Taras Bulba by Mykola Lysenko.