Music and Ukraine

In four shocking weeks, scenes of devastation from the war in Ukraine have become the norm of our daily news. I check each morning, in the vain hope that it will somehow have stopped.

Amongst the terror and heartbreak, an occasional glimmer of beauty amongst the rubble comes to light. It seems that the power of music cannot be destroyed. The happiness on this child’s face shines out as she sings Let it go from ‘Frozen’. No wonder it has now been viewed millions of times around the world.

The news that this little girl, Amelia Anisovich, whose singing brought joy to those people sheltering with her in Kyiv, is not only safe in Poland but sang the Ukrainian national anthem in front of a stadium of thousands, was one heart-warming story.

Since the start of the war, I’ve watched Ukrainians singing their national anthem, on tv and social media: from the spontaneous response of a man being interviewed for a news report to the members of the Ukrainian parliament meeting in the first week of the invasion. It appears that the threat to their existence has strengthened feelings of Ukrainian identity and singing the anthem is symbolic of their resilient spirit of resistance.

The threat to their lives has led millions to flee but for those who have stayed, there is little comfort except perhaps from music. I can’t imagine that any musician expects to perform in a bomb shelter but here is violinist, Vera Lytovchenko doing just that.

It was very difficult to play and think about something that wasn’t war. But I decided I must do something. We have become a family in this cellar and when I played they cried. They forget about the war for some moments and think about something else.

Lytovchenko, Guardian News, 7 March 2022.

In solidarity with Ukrainians, violinists from around the world joined another violinist, Illia Bondarenko who is playing here from a bunker in Kyiv.

Musical statements of resistance have sprung up even in ruined cities. Here, cellist Denys Karachevtsev plays Bach amongst the destroyed buildings of Kharkiv with the aim of fundraising for humanitarian aid.

Around the world, musicians from many genres have organised concerts to raise funds for Ukraine and to show their fellow feeling through music. Here’s Endpin Project Cello Choir playing the Ukrainian national anthem (with fundraising links when opened in You Tube).

We can express a depth of feeling through music that is sometimes difficult to put into words. This final clip offers a heartfelt message of hope for the Ukrainian people, in words and music, from Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

Back to Bach

Later today, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is going to play all six Bach suites in memory of those who have died of Covid-19. He has performed the suites in many parts of the world and now will play them in a concert online. (See a previous post: Yo-Yo Ma builds bridges with Bach.) He has been playing Bach’s music to communicate his message of peace and hope across nations and now he will play a memorial concert for those who have been lost to the pandemic.

For me, as a cellist, Bach’s suites for solo cello are, of course, very special. But I also adore Bach’s magnificent works for large forces. The St John Passion for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, is almost overwhelming in its emotional power. I was lucky enough to catch an unusual online performance of this work arranged for solo voice, percussion and harpsichord/organ given on Good Friday at St Thomas Church, Leipzig. Yes, the church where Bach was concert master and organist. It was arranged and sung by Benedikt Kristjansson. Wow! Am I glad I stopped still for a few hours to watch this. The singing was spine-tingling, the arrangement imaginative and creative. It was one of the most moving performances of the piece I have ever heard. And that was the third St John Passion I had heard since lockdown!

And the other two were by the Berlin Phil. One of the first things I did was take advantage of the 30 day free trial of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra digital concert hall: a treasure trove of concert archives. It was the beginning of lockdown and I was full of positive energy and optimism that a few weeks indoors would cure this pandemic. I spent several days watching concerts including two performances of Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. Mark Padmore sang the part of the Evangelist, Simon Rattle conducted and Peter Sellars directed these stunning dramatised performances. Each performance was profoundly  moving and affected me for days afterwards.

Now, several weeks on and still in lockdown, Bach’s music remains balm for the soul, for me. So thank you in advance to Yo-Yo Ma for this concert of Bach’s cello suites to be performed on You Tube at 8pm this evening.

Yo-Yo Ma plays a Bach memorial concert, on Sunday, May 24 at 3p ET (8pm BST)

For performances of St John and St Matthew Passions and much more:

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Digital Concert Hall


Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach’s Cello Suites

This is a shortened version of the article published on July 19th.

My cat transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording of the Bach cello suites but perhaps more importantly, he is performing them in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.

Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.

There are six concerts still to go: in the US, Lebanon, South Korea, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Find out more at The Bach Project

Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing  Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.