Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, with violinist Valeriy Sokolov

La forza del destino – Overture

Yevhen Stankovicøh
Violin Concerto No. 2

Myroslav Skoryk

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’

Valeriy Sokolov (violin)

Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra
Keri-Lynn Wilson

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 3 September, 2023
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There was a fair amount of blue and yellow worn and displayed for the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra’s last concert of their European tour. With Madame Zelanska now its patron, the orchestra was formed last year by Keri-Lynn Wilson (Canadian with one side of her family Ukrainian), bringing together Ukrainian musicians, some working in other orchestras, some refugees from the war. They were last heard in London for a Prom added to the 2022 season. 

Then, the programme wasn’t overtly political; this time it most certainly was. The bleak opening brass unison to Verdi’s Forza del destino Overture as potent as the Tuba mirum from his Requiem: the UFO spared nothing in unleashing the opera’s doom-laden drama. This was followed by the Violin Concerto No. 2 by the Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovich (born 1942). He composed it in 2006, and it is to be hoped that the seven or eight performances in this tour secure its place in the repertoire. It looks as though the Snape Maltings (September 2) and Barbican performances were UK premieres, and the Ukrainian violinist Valeriy Sokolov could not have been a more persuasive advocate. 

About 25 minutes long, the Concerto’s three sections play without a break, with a furious fast section between each of the two Largos. It has a strong folk-song base, and Stankovich’s music ranges from extreme withdrawal to passages of blistering fury. He wrote it when Ukraine made its break from Russia, but its anguish and grief might easily apply to the current situation. There are a few nods to Shostakovich – the Concerto’s closing spectral lullaby, for example – and stronger echoes of Berg and Bartók. Stankovich’s orchestration is distinctive, with some fine woodwind-solo exchanges, atmospheric use of tubular bells, and a sumptuous, rarely deployed orchestral tutti. Sokolov caressed and declaimed the violin’s role, often more like an obbligato than a vehicle for display, and his presentation of the soloist as victim rather than victor was eloquent and strongly felt. Sokolov was equally affecting in the short Melody by Miroslav Skoryk (1938-2020), originally for flute and piano as a soundtrack to a 1982 Soviet film about the Second World War, which has become an unofficial Ukrainian national song.

By rights, the UFO’s explosive performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony should have brought about the end of this conflict. Wilson’s grasp of the first movement’s colossal expansion was so complete that you really missed the repeat, and she delivered an epic, searching quality to the Funeral March that Richard Strauss may well have had in mind when he wrote his Metamorphosen. The UFO’s playing had a bracing vitality and intelligence, expertly released by Wilson’s long view of Beethoven’s favourite Symphony. She made a short speech, then led orchestra and audience, both standing, through the Ukrainian national anthem. May this concert do its work, and soon.

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