"My body was telling me I had to play"

23/03/2022 Juliana Széchenyi

Authors Klara Širovnik
Date: 23 Mar 2022

UKRAINIAN YOUTH ORCHESTRA "My body was telling me I had to play" The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine arrived in Ljubljana at the beginning of the month. Klara Širovnik In the hall of the Ljubljana Diocesan Gymnasium, the youngsters clutched their instruments tightly to their sides, and - instead of clapping - gently tapped their bows on the music stands when the school representatives addressed them. That's how it goes in an orchestra.

In their new environment, musical instruments are the only thing that is still familiar, old and familiar. Flutes, violins, cellos and other instruments are not just objects for young musicians, but companions with whom they share beautiful and difficult moments. The Slovenian Youth Orchestra - with its leader and conductor Živa Ploj Peršuh at the helm - responded to the plight of the Ukrainian Youth Orchestra, led by internationally renowned conductor Oksana Lyniv. When they asked their friends from Ukraine what they needed, they initially expected donations and crisis materials to be sent to the war zone. "But they said they needed to evacuate," the Slovenian team tells us when we visit. Despite the surprise and uncertainty, things finally moved quickly: activation was under way within 24 hours and the first musicians arrived in Slovenia three days later. Although the young people are no longer being bussed to Ljubljana, the musicians are still coming by train. The total number is increasing day by day, and the Slovenian Youth Orchestra team expects the group to stabilise at around 170 people. It is important that we do not perceive the musicians as "refugees", conductor Ploj Peršuhova makes it clear. Not only because this word has acquired an extremely negative connotation in our environment, but also because the young people will continue their professional work with us. That is the central objective. "They have fled from many cities, and all they want - even to overcome the trauma that is beginning to eat away at them - is to be involved in everything that they imagine their life to be. They want to be useful, they want to be integrated, they want to help themselves, the situation and us. They are very willing to integrate quickly, but on the other hand, they carry an enormous burden that they are not even aware of," continues the conductor. That said, it is crucial that their musical training and rehearsals continue. "Every hour that they wait and their education is put on the back burner is an immense terror for them," she explains. Nineteen-year-old Kamila plays cello in the orchestra. She started playing at the age of five. She has a long, stormy, wild and happy relationship with the instrument. She still remembers her first music lesson when she started practising as a girl in a music school in Kiev. "I played with the teacher, he showed me how to hold everything, and I really wished I could take my cello home after the lesson," she says with a smile. He told her she had to play at school for at least two weeks before she could take the instrument with her. That's the rules. "I ran around the school, shouting and nagging my mother not to let me go home without my cello. It's a story my mother likes to tell people she knows because I still love music and the cello has been my love since the first time I touched it," she says. When asked who her favourite composer is, she is slow to answer. "I guess it would be Haydn, because he's a classical composer. I love Bach because it's both easy and difficult to play. That sounds contradictory, but you just have to feel his style and let yourself go." We slowly ask Kamila if she can play even when she is restless and when she feels unwell, if playing well requires being in tune with herself and with her surroundings. When she heard the first bombs in Kiev, she started practising even more, she replies. "But to play well, as you say, I need to be calm. She knows herself. My soul is connected to the instrument. When it started, I really wanted to play. I don't know why. My hands, my fingers... my whole body was telling me I had to play, I just wanted to hold my cello," she continues. Of course, the answer to this question is not clear-cut. Kamila knows several people who cannot play or even listen to music at this time. Her boyfriend, who plays the trombone, stayed in Kiev. He is also a professional musician, but he was mobilised. "He said he can't play, his mind is on the war", she continues. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski recently announced that musicians will be allowed to leave the country and continue their mission, Kamila says calmly. Whether her boyfriend would be able to come too, she cannot be sure. "You know, musicians are not for war. We can do something for the soul, but it's more difficult for the army. We can work for the country on the other side," says the young interlocutor. Kamila - like much of the youth orchestra - stays in touch with her family in Ukraine. They are currently safe, but she calls them every day and even every hour if possible. She sees her future in a big fog; she had a lot of dreams, she says, but circumstances have changed and so have her goals. "But I will play forever." In this country, too, there has been a lot of debate in recent weeks about whether it makes sense to give up the whole of Russian culture as a sign of opposition to the war. Such decisions are extreme, but when it comes to art, they also seem excessive. Talking to young people, it is obvious that they are not thinking along these lines, even if they are direct victims of the Russian invasion. Seventeen-year-old singer Mazyna, talking about composers, blurts out: "My favourite composer is Tchaikovsky! I like the romanticism of his compositions." Mazyna did not grow up in a musical environment. Her parents were not involved in music, only she and her brother, who plays the piano, enjoy it. "We used to play together. But now he stays in Ukraine, 20 years old. He's still there," explains the young artist. The evacuation of male musicians has also caused several problems for the Slovenian Youth Orchestra. It was complicated by the fact that the 15- and 16-year-old boys were initially refused entry across the border by the Ukrainians, and consequently not by the Hungarians, because of mobilisation. They were finally evacuated with the help of Andrej Šter and the Slovenian Embassy, explains Tomo Peršuh, a representative of the Slovenian Youth Orchestra. Mothers going back to the front Some of the children were accompanied by their mothers to Slovenia. There are currently around 47 adults in the group. Many mothers have returned to Ukraine to help directly after seeing that the young people are in safe hands. Ziva Ploi Persukh says that these are highly educated women - paediatricians, X-ray specialists, film directors, scriptwriters, top-level musicians, graphic designers. These profiles of people are employable in Slovenia. As a result, the Slovenian Orchestra is also working in this direction: they have arranged the possibility of preparing a European CV, and seven adult individuals from the group are on the verge of signing a job contract. "A few days ago, a young woman was offered a job at an IT company. These shifts need to happen for people to maintain a sense of credibility, dignity and purpose," explains Ploj Peršuhova. Olga is one of the companions who has been with the young people since the evacuation. She now works as a coordinator, and in Lviv she worked as a conductor and cultural manager in the cultural centre. She left her family at home. Young musicians need her, she says. "I think I need to be with the orchestra. It's my way of helping my country. These children miss their mothers, they are afraid, I am here as their parent," she explains. Bureaucracy and housing Working with young Ukrainians, there are a lot of unanswered questions every day: when will they eat, when will they rehearse and when will they study. The state and the Municipality of Ljubljana have reacted perfectly, according to the organisers. But even they cannot cover everything, so they are collecting donations. "This is not a situation where people come and just are here. This is not their highest goal," continues Ploj Peršuhova. They will try to get top musicians from Europe who are willing to come here to teach and young conductors to lead the orchestra. "We will be able to do all the musical things, but the systemic things are not all in our domain." They note that not all the links have been resolved at national level. "All this is being sorted out, we understand. But there are already a lot of people in Slovenia at the moment, the number is not low for our capacity. Systemic pressure should have happened by now, but it hasn't yet," he adds. Many things have remained at the declarative level: a concrete example is social care, which is complicated in practice. Although the leaders have announced that this is sorted out for Ukrainians, a few days ago one of the Ukrainian musicians had to go to hospital, where a problem arose. "They called us to say that we would have to pay because the lady didn't have any papers." So the problem is that in many cases the instructions are not communicated to the subsystems. On the other hand, the Slovenian Youth Orchestra is also aware that integration is possible within the limits of our institutions - they cannot interfere in the structure of an institution by taking something away from it. "Let me explain with the concrete example of a music school: if they have rooms and pianos, our assimilation must not happen in such a way that they have fewer rooms, fewer pianos and fewer teachers for their pupils." It is necessary to agree with each individual when and in what contexts it is possible to practise. At the same time, they cannot tell a single person who provides accommodation or a donation how long it will take. We also visited the musicians at Hostel Celica in Metelkova, where they are currently staying. The sound of the flute and bassoon echoed through the corridors and in the dining room. It is virtually impossible to get a flat for them in Ljubljana. Tomo Peršuh is in contact with six companies that would be willing to sign a contract with the landlords for them, but things are not moving in the right direction. "This includes Porsche Slovenia, which cannot even get a flat in Ljubljana for its employees from Kiev. We don't think this will be fixed until the state gives a clear signal that it is ready to pay the rent to these people," the youth orchestra says. At the same time, they do not want young people to go into poor rental conditions where they will be unhappy. First they go on a tour with a volunteer, and then the potential hosts have their say. "Because we want them to fit in. I don't think the problem is that they are Ukrainians, but it's a purely financial thing - for some, this rent is like a pension," Tomo Peršuh continues. By August, they have the people, the capacity and the organisational capabilities to provide the young musicians with everything they need. The key, they stress, is donations. They will structure their days themselves, they have sent them on Slovenian and English language courses, and they have arranged computers so that those who have the possibility of online education from Kiev can make it happen. They will also take care of them when their parents have to return to the country to rebuild it. "It would be best if these young people had at least some sense of being on a musical tour at the moment," says Živa Ploj Peršuh. It's not just about evacuation, but also about social integration into a new environment and contact with local musicians. The latter can also be seen as an opportunity. In the world of classical music, healthy competition is extremely important. A mirror that can be held up to you by anyone from anywhere is a welcome mirror - through it you can question yourself and see what level you are at. "The sum of this information shapes a young person immensely. This morning, for example, I received news that three boys from the Slovenian Youth Orchestra have been accepted for summer training at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which is an exceptional opportunity. They will learn a lot, they will make new friends and contacts that will last a lifetime. We joke these days that politics starts in kindergartens - but this networking is very important in some healthy relationships. It can't be a bad thing for the country either," concludes Živa Ploj Peršuh.