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Kharkiv Orchestra: The Band Plays On Despite the Bombs


Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, is the country's artistic heart, and that is especially true for classical music. Despite weeks of Russian strikes on the city, a conductor and his orchestras refused to cancel their music festival. NPR's Joanna Kakissis sends us this postcard from Kharkiv.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's a few days before the big performance, and 17-year-old Varvara Kasyanova is rehearsing with the Kharkiv children's orchestra, where she's principal violinist. Despite the war, she says the musicians have come together, making what she calls magic.

VARVARA KASYANOVA: (Through interpreter) I've performed at music competitions and concerts since first grade. It's so important to share music with an audience.


KAKISSIS: The musicians are practicing "Ukrainian Suite," a piece by American composer Quincy Porter. They're at Kharkiv's opera theater, but not on its sprawling and majestic stage. They're in a small, dark room several floors underground.

KASYANOVA: (Through interpreter) Because of the attacks, I am very worried. So is my family. But I live close to the subway, and so the way to rehearsals is also underground.

VITALI ALEKSEENOK: (Singing in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Conducting the young musicians is Vitali Alekseenok.

ALEKSEENOK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He's the artistic director of the annual Kharkiv Music Festival.


KAKISSIS: And he also conducts the festival's professional orchestra, which has been shrinking in size since the war began.

ALEKSEENOK: Before the war, there were, I think, 10, 15, 20 bassoonists, and now we have zero bassoon players.

KAKISSIS: What's happened to them?

ALEKSEENOK: They all left. We don't have tuba player because, three, four days before the rehearsal start, he was mobilized. So he was enlisted. He's somewhere. I don't know where, exactly, but now he's going to fight.

KAKISSIS: We talk at a nearby park after rehearsal. Alekseenok is originally from Belarus but has lived in Germany for several years. He came to Kharkiv just for the festival, as musicians from Europe and the U.S. used to do before the war.

ALEKSEENOK: I ask maybe 20 or 30 different musicians whether they could imagine to come to Kharkiv and to perform here for our festival. Ninety-nine percent of them said no.

KAKISSIS: A phone app alert warns of yet another attack.


AUTOMATED VOICE: Attention. Increased air threat in your area. Proceed to the nearest shelter.

KAKISSIS: Have you noticed that not a single person has gotten up to leave? Did you look around?

ALEKSEENOK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's always like that.


KAKISSIS: The conductor soon returns underground to the musicians who were preparing for another rehearsal. The Kharkiv opera theater was damaged in a Russian attack early in the war, so its leaders created what they call an arts fortress in the corridors and spaces under the building. Ihor Tuluzov is the opera theater's artistic director.

IHOR TULUZOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "We only use the main stage occasionally for rehearsals in between air raid alarms," he says, "but we must hold events in the safest place - the bomb shelter."

The festival begins. Concert-goers are dressed up, but they must go through security and follow a labyrinth of corridors to reach the wartime stage.


KAKISSIS: The orchestra of adults performs first.


KAKISSIS: And a violin solo brings the audience to tears.


KAKISSIS: A couple of days later, the children's orchestra is on stage with a piano solo playing to a full house. Outside are air raid sirens and explosions. But here, there is only music.


KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM WAITS' "CLOSING TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.