“unified, focused passion…make no mistake: The men and women of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra are fighting” – New York Times

              “the quality of orchestral blend was extraordinary” – Guardian

“an assertion of civilisation against barbarism” – Daily Telegraph

On the 23rd February Deutsche Grammophon released a digital live recording of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra (UFO) and conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson’s emotionally charged Warsaw performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, capturing one of the artistic highlights of 2023. Coinciding with the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, this project is in aid of the people of Ukraine and all proceeds will go to the Olena Zelenska FoundationListen to the e-album here.

The orchestra was created as a cultural riposte to this invasion, and in their take on Beethoven’s final symphony, the hymnal theme set to Schiller’s great poem of freedom, “Ode to Joy”, is sung in Ukrainian.  Further, in this new performance edition, UFO founder and music director Keri-Lynn Wilson changes Schiller’s opening word “Freude” (Joy) to the Ukrainian word “Slava” (Glory) in a moving echo of Ukraine’s rallying call of resistance in the face of aggression, “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine!). This also evokes memories of Leonard Bernstein’s historic recording of “Ode to Freedom” (Symphony No. 9), performed on Christmas day 1989 in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989, in which he changed “Freude” (Joy) to “Freiheit” (Freedom).

The 74-strong UFO was formed in 2022 by its founder and music director, Keri-Lynn Wilson, in coordination with the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Polish National Opera in Warsaw. It brings together the finest Ukrainian musicians from ensembles across the country, Ukrainian musicians who had become refugees abroad following the invasion and Ukrainian members of European orchestras. Its acclaimed tours in 2022 and 2023 took in leading venues across Europe and the United States, showcasing contemporary Ukrainian composers such as Silvestrov, Skoryk and Stankovych alongside the greats of the wider European musical tradition. They were met with a rapturous and emotional public response, critical acclaim, and unprecedented media coverage.

“On the day Putin invaded I was angry and appalled and immediately determined to do something to oppose this barbarism”, says Keri-Lynn Wilson. “Not just because I am of Ukrainian-Canadian heritage, or because I have cousins who live in the country, some of whom have fought on the front line in Donbas. But because this assault on a nation and its culture demanded a response in kind. I could not take up arms, but I could take up my baton as my weapon.”

The orchestra is under the patronage of Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, who describes it as “the musical voice of Ukraine”, adding that its performances proclaim “the timeless message of liberty contained in the eternal classics of their program. Music will speak to silence aggression.” 

The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy has been a staunch supporter of the project and has assisted in ensuring Ukrainian based male members of the orchestra can leave the country and deploy their musical excellence as part of the wider war effort in a remarkable demonstration of the power of art over adversity.

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra will re-group in the Summer of 2024 to tour again throughout Europe and the United States. “As Ukraine continues its fight on behalf of the free world, it needs our support now more than ever,” concludes Wilson. “I’m proud to join the brave musicians of the Orchestra once again as we defend Ukraine’s cultural legacy. You cannot erase or silence a culture. We will not rest until the war is won.”