On Feb. 2, 12 members of the Kenyon community buckled into vans and drove to the Swasey Chapel at Denison University to attend a full evening program of classical music performed by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine.
The performance at Denison was one stop on the orchestra’s 2023 international tour to express “artistic defiance” against Russia. The Kenyon Campus Community Development Fund, which seeks to bring students and faculty together in meaningful, enjoyable ways, sponsored the trip for Kenyon community members after receiving tickets from the Vail Series at Denison University. The tickets were distributed via lottery, and 12 people including myself from the Kenyon community were able to attend for free.
Over the course of the evening, the orchestra performed contemporary Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych’s Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Flute and String Orchestra, Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “New World Symphony.” Each piece swelled and glittered, and the most resounding moments of the performance seemed to make the very structure of the tall chapel ring.
More than 50 musicians formed a sea on the stage and were conducted by Theodore Kuchar. The crowd clapped loudly at the performers’ entrance and bows and quieted immediately as Kuchar raised his baton to ready the musical machine sitting in front of him. When they began, they were like an engine revving to life, and it was clear they had no intention of slowing.
The orchestra followed its conductor as he led them with his whole body and even his voice. To prepare the cellists and brass instrumentalists, he made a whispery noise at times before striking his baton in their direction. When he tapped his fingers together, a triangle would ping or symbols would crash. Looking around the stage, you could see that many of the musicians’ faces were stern and focused, looking between their sheet music and their conductor. However, a few of the musicians wore expressions of unexpected tranquility and seemed as lost in the music as I was. Their hands moved like light along their instruments, yet they showed no sign of the effort and years of practice that equipped them for this performance. It was mesmerizing to watch.
For the first piece, a flute soloist walked out from backstage to stand next to the conductor with his flute already poised to play. After he and the conductor shared a look, the piece was off. As the flutist played, he leaned and bent his body, similar to how the conductor led with his. Not once looking at the audience except when taking his concluding bow, he had taken the room on a journey and seemed to tell an entire story through his playing and body language.
The highlight of the evening was easily when world-renowned violinist Vladyslava Luchenko played in the Brahms piece. When she walked through the rows of seated musicians and music stands to the front of the stage in a glittering gold and black dress, the whole chapel understood she intended to dazzle us, and that was exactly what she did.
The last piece had multiple movements, and in the silent pauses between them, I thought I felt a collective feeling of awe settle in. I know I felt myself slip into a daze. When the performance officially concluded, the room rose to its feet and gave the performers the thunderous applause they deserved. I didn’t want the orchestra to leave the stage; if I could have listened to them for 10 more evenings, I would have.
Program Coordinator for International Students and Scholars Yegor Sorokin spoke about the importance of the orchestra: “It was a delight to see our Kenyon students enjoying this orchestra that has become the symbol of resilience and hope in the past year of war and instability.”
At the reception following the performance, a few students and I went to pay our respects to Luchenko, and I was so nervous to be in her presence I can’t even remember what I said. We all fumbled something like, “You were incredible” and “Thank you very much,” and she thanked us in return with the humility and pride of someone who knows they are an effervescent performer.