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In Conversation with Ukrainian Musicologist Anna Stavychenko (Harriman Resident in Paris, ’22-’23)
March 23, 2023

Anna Stavychenko (Harriman Resident in Paris, ’22 – ’23) was executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She fled Kyiv for Poland with her parents. Since then, she’s helped relocate the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra to Poland and has been working to promote Ukrainian culture abroad. In Poland, she worked as the curator of special projects for the prominent Polish orchestra, Sinfonia Varsovia, helping to integrate the Ukrainian repertoire into the orchestra’s programs and organizing special musical events for Ukrainian refugees. Currently she’s the head of a special mission of the Philarmonie de Paris that provides temporary contracts with French national orchestras to Ukrainian musicians displaced by the war.

Stavychenko is a Harriman Resident at Columbia’s Global Center (Paris) and the Institute for Ideas and Imagination this year, working on a book about Ukrainian refugee musicians, which includes her own story and insights about the classical music industry.

The following transcript is an edited and condensed excerpt from a longer interview that will appear in a forthcoming episode of our podcast, Voices of Ukraine. Our conversation took place via Zoom on March 2, 2023.

[You can meet Stavychenko at our March 27 event, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culturewhich will highlight the work of Harriman residents in Paris!]

— Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Masha Udensiva-Brenner: Can you talk about your background? Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like?

Anna Stavychenko: Kyiv is my hometown. I spent my childhood there. My parents were both engineers, but they’re also art and music lovers and they wanted to give me as many opportunities as possible to help me find out who I wanted to be. I was dancing classical ballet, painting, playing the cello, violin, and piano when I was three years old.

When I was seven, I entered a very special music school for the gifted. But when I was 16, I injured my shoulder and had to stop playing violin, even though I was already a professional performer.

MUB: How did you injure your shoulder?

AS: It was winter, a lot of snow and ice. I was with my violin going to school and fell down. I was afraid to break my violin and I decided to fall on my left hand. And that’s how it happened. It was a huge drama for my family because we invested everything we could in my career. My parents had sacrificed a lot for me. I still played for six months, fighting for my future as a performer. But the pain was absolutely impossible. So, I had to change directions.

I couldn’t imagine myself without music. And thanks to my teachers, who had always wanted me to become a musicologist, I switched careers. Of course, it was insane to change your profession just one year before entering university, but we decided to try. That year I worked 24/7, literally. I lost weight. I had no time to eat or to do anything. I was just reading, writing, listening, going even deeper into classical music than I had ever before as a performer. And it worked. I entered the National Music Academy and it was fine. And in the end, things worked out for the best because I love what I do even more than before.

MUB: What does the profession of musicology entail?

AS: That’s a good question. A musicologist analyzes music, how it’s written, which techniques a composer used, which instruments, how all those instruments work together, and so on. But also, what we do is very much connected to history, the history of music, and also history in general, because usually you are focused on some specific era or composer and in addition to analyzing the music itself, you also look at what influenced this piece, or this era, or this style.

Sometimes, musicology is also connected to sociology: to understand how a particular composer was affected by society and how they influenced society and so on. For example, my Ph.D. was about the late operas of Richard Strauss written during the Third Reich in Germany. This topic allowed me to discover more about cultural propaganda, and the Nazi era in general. So, as you can see, it’s not exactly just reading scores and writing about what you hear. It can be much broader. Being a performer helped me a lot, because I understand how music works from that perspective.

MUB: And how did the knowledge and learning about the Nazi cultural propaganda illuminate what you were seeing around you in Ukraine with Russian cultural propaganda?

AS: For me it was pretty clear when the war started in 2014. And even before, being a music critic and traveling a lot and seeing how much influence Russia had in the classical music world, it was clear for me that they were using classical music as so-called soft power to be present in places where they probably otherwise wouldn’t be.

MUB: Are there some examples that jump to mind?

AS: Some of the main classical music festivals in Europe, such as the Salzburg Festival—one of the most influential music festivals in the world—were sponsored by Gazprom. For a few years Gazprom was the main sponsor. This affected the programming a lot. You could see a lot of Russian musicians there, Russian composers, and so on. So, you went to Salzburg and had the feeling that you were in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

MUB: How did the Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s initial war in 2014 affect Ukrainian culture?

AS: A lot of artists were involved. Many of them are my friends. All of us protested together on Maidan, and in this way, it was very artistic. We had some performances, photographers were doing some projects there, painters, writers writing about the experience.

So, this movement had an influence inside the country. And when Crimea happened and Donbas was occupied by the Russians, maybe there was some extra attention for Ukrainians, but still it wasn’t enough.

The world was still too silent about what was going on in Ukraine in 2014. And at all these main festivals you could still see only the Russian repertoire, and nothing changed to make the Ukrainian repertoire more visible. Nothing. People preferred to be blind. But also, Ukraine didn’t do enough to change things as a state, because to change you need professionals, you need investments, you need strong institutions, which we didn’t have enough of at the time.

MUB: And what were you doing professionally during the events of 2014?

AS: I was a music history teacher and an art teacher. I was doing a lot of projects as a producer, organizing concerts and events. I was very active as a music critic, mostly as an opera critic. So, I was traveling a lot. That’s why I know very well that nothing had changed in the classical music industry.

MUB: And when did you start working for the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra?

AS: March 1, 2021. It was pretty new for me when the full-scale war started. I had so many dreams about this orchestra and some of those dreams we turned into reality. For example, we worked with the National Opera of Ukraine to put on the first performance of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the history of Ukraine. This was in September 2021. And we had other plans, but things changed dramatically.

MUB: Can you talk about what you were doing when the full-scale invasion started?

AS:  It was four or five am in Kyiv. A terrible sound woke me up. From the very first second it was clear for me that it was war. I called my parents. Our plan was to go to our country house a hundred kilometers outside of Kyiv. It didn’t feel safe there. Not at all. It was even worse, actually. So, we decided to go to Lviv by train. But we didn’t feel safe there either, and then we went to Poland.

MUB: Did you know anyone in Poland?

AS: No. Back at our country house, I’d seen a message from my colleague, a stage director, who said that if we needed help relocating to let him know and he would see what he could do. When we were in Lviv with my parents, I texted him. He called someone and pretty quickly found a Polish family who were ready to host us. We’d never seen these people before, but now they’ve become like family. And they’re still hosting my parents more than a year later.

MUB: And what was happening with the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra at this point?

AS: When I left home, the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra was still in Ukraine. A few days after we arrived in Poland, I started thinking, what’s next? I went to Warsaw; I spent a few days there meeting with various people and was invited to a concert dedicated to Ukraine by the Sinfonia Varsovia—one of the best orchestras in Poland—at the Polish National Opera. The next day they invited me to their office and told me they wanted to work with me.

My job was to help them develop the Ukrainian repertoire for their programming. We decided to evacuate the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra from Ukraine. Our German agency had organized a German tour for us very quickly, for late April/early May. But to play in these concerts, we had to rehearse. And since the war started, our musicians couldn’t even practice, never mind rehearse. They were just hiding in bomb shelters. So, I started organizing this rehearsing plan for them. And we decided to first bring them to Poland and organize two weeks of rehearsals before they went to Germany.

I was knocking on all possible doors and finally got the Polish Ministry of Culture, the National Institute of Music and Dance, and Poland’s National Philharmonic to partner with us. They helped with everything—with the rehearsal space, accommodations, everything the orchestra needed to prepare for the tour. And we opened our tour at the National Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw.

MUB: And what was it like to be reunited with the orchestra?

AS: It was a very powerful moment when they arrived. The next day they had the first rehearsal since the start of the war. We had a lot of journalists. We had the Ministry of Culture, the director of the National Philharmonic and the director of the National Institute of Music and Dance.

Many people in Poland told me that they hadn’t cried since the war started. But once they saw the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra playing on stage again, they cried because it was so powerful.

MUB: What have you been doing during your residency in Paris?

AS: I’m writing a book about my experiences and my musicians and how important music is at a time like this. I’m also a mission head at the Philarmonie de Paris, helping Ukrainian musicians who left Ukraine to find temporary contracts in the French national orchestras.

MUB: How does it feel to be writing about your experiences?

AS: It’s very hard because I didn’t really allow myself to feel many emotions when all of this happened. I had to be focused. I had to be strong to survive. So I suppressed a lot of my feelings. Now, working on this book, I have to feel my emotions from a year ago.

Also, I’m interviewing my musicians about their experiences. It’s really hard, so many traumas all around. People’s lives have changed forever. The Russians are trying to destroy us, so the only thing we can do is to resist.

Stavychenko, along with her fellow Harriman Residents, will join us at the Institute in late March for two campus events: an evening of discussion and celebration at Low Library, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture (March 27), and a poetry reading and discussion, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow: An Evening With Ukrainian Poet Natalka Bilotserkivets (March 31).