Ukrainian orchestra members refused UK visas in ‘catastrophe’ costing estimated €100,000

14 April 2023, 12:42 | Updated: 14 April 2023, 13:22

Ukrainian orchestra members refused UK visas in ‘disaster’ costing estimated €100,000
Ukrainian orchestra members refused UK visas in ‘disaster’ costing estimated €100,000. Picture: Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The promoter for the concerts – which are movie soundtrack specials starring the music of John Williams and Howard Shore – said the debacle had cost them around €100,000.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Members of a Ukrainian orchestra were refused UK visas to tour a series of film music concerts, it has been reported.

The day before their first concert in the UK, five key members of the Khmelnitsky Orchestra still hadn’t received their UK visas. Two days into the tour, they were told they would have to pay €15,000 for emergency visas, which were not issued in time.

The promoter, Star Entertainment, told The Guardian the “catastrophe” has cost them more than €100,000 (£88,000).

Having recently toured all over Europe, the Khmelnitsky Orchestra were booked to perform across the UK with The Magical Music of Harry Potter and The Music from The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Rings of Power.

After the orchestra’s Harry Potter concert in Belgium last year, during which they played excerpts from the franchise’s soundtrack, British Deputy Ambassador to Brussels Chloe Louter said it was “an incredible honour to have such an iconic part of British culture performed by a Ukrainian orchestra”.

The shows were promoted on the UK government website as an example of the UK and Ukraine ‘coming together’.

Read more: 13-year-old Ukrainian refugee plays poignant piano music, one year since the war began

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

The managing director of Star Entertainment, Jaka Bizilj, has accused the British government of hypocrisy. “They made a big deal out of supporting Ukrainians, but when it came to giving them visas to play in the UK, they didn’t want to know,” he told the publication.

The orchestra were due to begin the UK tour on 1 April in Portsmouth. The day before, the conductor and four first violins hadn’t received their visas, and they ended up stuck in Paris for a week waiting for them to be issued by the British Embassy.

Two days into the tour, they were told they would have to pay €15,000 for 24-hour express visas – but Bizilj says they were not issued in time, and has accused the UK government of “holding the orchestra hostage” in France.

“There was no real reason for the rejection. It was just arbitrary discrimination against Ukrainian artists,” he added.

Bizilj claims the visas were only issued after Star Entertainment asked the British Embassy to explain in a quote, as it planned to take the story to media. By that time, they had missed their Portsmouth concert, as well as dates at the York Barbican, and at the Lowry in Salford, which has been pushed back to 2024.

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

Khmelnitsky philharmonic orchestra, conductor Marco Muller. John Williams - Jurassic Park.

In the end, the Portsmouth date went ahead with British musicians, who were brought in at 11am to sight-read the music. Bizilj said concertgoers demanded refunds, as they couldn’t play the full program.

He estimates the sequence of events has cost the company €100,000 in fees, hotel expenses and reputational damage.

A UK government spokesperson has since responded: “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture with the country attracting world-class entertainers and musicians from around the globe. This is why we offer a dedicated immigration route for creative workers.

“All visa applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with the immigration rules.

“Where there are delays in the processing of applications, we will always endeavour to identify how such issues can be avoided in the near future through improvements to our back office function and capability.”

In the midst of the humanitarian crisis following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s classical music ensembles continue to share their music with audiences across the world. In October this year, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine will visit London’s Cadogan Hall to play Bruch, Sibelius and more in its first tour of the UK in over 20 years.