UK government urged to ‘extend the hand of friendship’ and waive visas for Ukrainian orchestras

10 June 2022, 13:57 | Updated: 10 June 2022, 19:03

Kyiv Symphony Orchestra plays at the Palace of Culture in Dresden, Germany, with flags of Ukraine stuck to their instruments
Kyiv Symphony Orchestra plays at the Palace of Culture in Dresden, Germany, with flags of Ukraine stuck to their instruments. Picture: Alamy

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The chief executive of the Association of British Orchestras has said it’s “morally repugnant” that the UK government has not already waived visas for Ukrainian orchestras invited to perform in Britain.

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Earlier this week, a question was raised in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s questions by the MP for Worsley and Eccles South, Barbara Keeley, who is also the Shadow Minister for Arts and Civil Society.

The Labour MP called for the government to waive visas for Ukrainian musicians planning to tour the UK, naming the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and the Kyiv Symphony (pictured above) as two ensembles currently struggling logistically and financially with planning UK concerts.

The newly formed Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, whose players include musicians who recently fled the war, has recently begun a tour of Europe and this summer is scheduled to perform at three festivals across the UK including the Edinburgh International Festival, and at Snape Maltings.

However, the orchestra’s musicians will be re-entering the UK twice during their three-concert visit, due to prearranged concerts in other European cities, meaning a multi-entry visa will be needed for each musician, costing £259 per head. With the orchestra totalling around 100 musicians, this puts the total visa cost at £18,000 for just three UK concerts.

Playing alongside refugee players in the orchestra, are musicians from the Kyiv National Opera, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra, and Kharkiv Opera, among other Ukrainian ensembles. Outside of Ukraine, players come from ensembles including the Tonkunstler Orchestra of Vienna, the Belgian National Orchestra, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Read more: Kyiv’s National Opera House defiantly reopens as war rages on in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra is scheduled to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival 2022
The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra is scheduled to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival 2022. Picture: EIF

Mark Pemberton, chief executive of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), describes charging the musicians for entry to the UK as “morally repugnant”.

He told Classic FM: “The government has very nobly waived visa fees for the homeless for Ukraine scheme, which I want to give them huge credit for. We don’t want to bash the government. We just want them to extend that hand of friendship on to these musicians who are trying to come to the UK to perform three concerts, and ideally, waive their requirement for a visa.”

Pemberton pushed to include the question of visa waivers for musicians into the Commons chamber earlier this week.

His organisation, the ABO, is the representative body for professional orchestras across the UK, and Pemberton admits: “It may seem slightly odd that we’re now working very hard to help non-British orchestras. But we’re well aware of the situation obviously in Ukraine.”

Pemberton himself has taken in a 31-year-old Ukrainian refugee as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The scheme which launched in march earlier this year has allowed over 70,000 Ukraine Scheme visa-holders to enter the UK.

The special visa allows people living in the UK to sponsor a named Ukrainian national or family to come to live in the UK with them, providing they have suitable accommodation to offer.

In response to MP Keeley’s question in commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson cited the Homes for Ukraine scheme, saying that the government should be very proud of what they were doing, and recommending Keeley direct her question to the Home Secretary instead.

Keri Lynn-Wilson, conductor of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra
Keri Lynn-Wilson, conductor of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra. Picture: Getty

It’s not only financial issues that are at play for musicians in the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra. When applying for a visa needed to enter the UK, each musician has to send off their passports as part of their application, which means their documents could be out of their hands for up to six weeks.

This would not only hinder their travel during their European tour, but also stop them from applying for their US visas. The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra are due to tour America later this year, which has been organised by The Metropolitan Opera.

Pemberton explained to Classic FM: “They’re doing a concert in Carnegie Hall, and touring America. Now, the trouble is, they also have to apply for a US visa, and they can’t do that if their passports are stuck in a UK visa processing centre.

“If the orchestra are unable to come because of these logistical and financial issues, honestly, it will be embarrassing for our country.”

Read more: Donbas music school destroyed by Russian shelling in Eastern Ukraine

Soldiers of Music: Introducing the musicians of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra. Iryna Solovei, violin 🎶 For more information about our orchestra, please see my website:

Posted by Keri-Lynn Wilson on Friday, May 20, 2022

Canadian-Ukrainian conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson, leads the orchestra and has made multiple videos for her Facebook page (watch one above) with first-hand stories from the musicians in the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.

Many of the musicians say they jumped at the chance to be part of the orchestra, as they see it as their way of supporting Ukraine “in the fight against Russian aggression”.

“It’s not just about doing concerts,” Pemberton reiterated to Classic FM. “They’re raising awareness and flying the flag for their country. Any profit from the tour will go back into supporting their nation.

“This tour means it means everything to these musicians. And charging them £18,000 to come play in our country just seems to me, to be morally wrong.”