Kharkiv residents soothed by classical music in underground festival as war continues in Ukraine

30 March 2022, 13:18 | Updated: 30 March 2022, 13:34

A string quintet performs in an underground train station being used as a bomb shelter
A string quintet performs in an underground train station being used as a bomb shelter. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Kharkiv’s international music festival was due to start on 26 March, but plans were halted because of the war. Now, its musicians are playing in train stations beneath the city...

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On 26 March, a “concert between explosions” took place in an underground train station in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

The Kharkiv Music Fest was due to start on the same date, but plans were halted because of the Russian invasion.

To mark what would have been the festival’s opening night, five musicians took to an underground train station which is currently being used as a mass bomb shelter in Ukraine’s second largest city.

The string quintet performed a “concert between explosions” – as it was dubbed on social media – opening with the Ukrainian national anthem, then playing works by Bach and Dvořák, alongside arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs.

Conductor and artistic director of the Kharkiv festival, Vitali Alekseenok explained that the chosen music was programmed to highlight the connections between Ukrainian and Western European culture.

Read more: Nicola Benedetti accompanies Ukrainian refugees’ stories with soaring violin solo

One of the musicians performing was violinist and music teacher, Olha Pyshchyta. She told The Washington Post that, “at the concert... we felt unity”.

The other violinist at the concert, Stanislav Kucherenko said the experience of playing in the underground metro was like no other performance he had given before. He told The Washington Post, “There was at no stage [the] excitement that usually happens [when I perform] for people. [But] I knew that I was where I should be.”

Kucherenko explained that music can have a “strong influence on the psycho-emotional state of a person”, and “in the conditions of war” it can inspire “faith and optimism.”

Residents of Kharkiv listened to the musicians play in the underground station
Residents of Kharkiv listening to the musicians play in the underground station. Picture: Getty

As the musicians played the opening national anthem, many in the crowd of listeners sheltering in the underground station held their hands over their hearts.

For audience member Yaroslava Antipina, a strategist who has been documenting her experiences of the war on her Twitter account, it was the first music she had heard since the war began – “except for the cries of sirens”.

Half of Kharkiv’s population has fled the city since the beginning of the war, but many who have stayed now live in the underground shelters, fearful of Russian shelling.

The director of Kharkiv Music Fest, Sergiy Politutchy, decided to bring musicians down into the underground train station, as he thought those sheltering might benefit from the music.

Politutchy told Sky News: “Amid the darkness surrounding us now it's extremely important to show that there are eternal values and a future in our country.

“[To show] that our country is melodious, beautiful, intellectual, and will overcome all these difficulties.”

Cellist performs hauntingly beautiful version of Bach in the ruined streets of Kharkiv amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

One musician also keen to prove Politutchy’s words, took his music above ground and performed to the deserted, bombed-out streets of his home city.

The cellist from the “concert between explosions”, Denys Karachevtsev, filmed himself last week performing Bach’s Cello Suite No.5 against a backdrop of blown-out buildings.

Since his original post, Karachevtsev has performed in front of other notable Kharkiv landmarks which have now been destroyed, including the National Academy of State Administration of the President of Ukraine which was shelled by Russian forces at the beginning of last week.

He hopes his performance videos will encourage viewers to donate to city restoration and humanitarian aids.

Read more: Ukrainian cellist plays solitary Bach suite in abandoned bombed-out streets of Kharkiv

Music is returning to Ukraine, despite the continuing war. In Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, the Lviv International Symphony Orchestra recently rehearsed together for the first time since the invasion began.

Musical refugees from across the country joined the orchestra, who performed a concert on 25 March in the city’s concert hall. The music venue is currently being used as a storage facility for hospital and medical supplies.

The orchestra posted the hour and a half concert to Facebook for the world to watch. However, the concert was interrupted by the words, “Maestro, the air alarm sounded, [we] need to go down to the [shelter].”

Despite the interruption, the orchestra posted that they were proud they “played a concert in such a difficult time for the country.”