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The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra is embarking on its second international tour

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Beethoven's 9th Symphony is one of the most recognized pieces of music in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR: ODE TO JOY")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORAL GROUP: (Singing in German).

SIMON: Most notably for many of us is the symphony's choral piece, "Ode To Joy."

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR: ODE TO JOY")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORAL GROUP: (Singing in German).

SIMON: "Ode To Joy" has been performed in celebration at concert halls around the globe and sung on city streets around the world as a form of protest. This summer, a new Ukrainian translation is being performed by the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which is currently in Great Britain. And its conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson, joins us from London. Ms. Wilson, thanks so much for being with us.

KERI-LYNN WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I gather you're of Ukrainian heritage. And help us understand, please, what makes this performance so personal and compelling for you.

WILSON: Well, as a proud Canadian Ukrainian, I grew up in Winnipeg in the largest community for Ukrainians in North America. I was fascinated by my culture. As a child, I listened to my great-grandmother speak in Ukrainian only to my grandmother. And I carried this passion with me up until I finally went and conducted in Ukraine back in 2004. So at the start of the invasion, I was compelled, out of my sheer horror and desperation, to do something. So I had this wild idea of creating an orchestra of musician refugees - people who had lost everything, fled Ukraine and were desperate to make music. So we put into plan to go on a tour last summer, which was so successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN E MINOR: FROM THE NEW WORLD")

WILSON: We made it an established orchestra and unfortunately, had wanted this tour this summer to be a victory tour, but the war is only getting worse. But to get to the main highlight of our tour, it was two performances of Beethoven 9. Beethoven 9, as you said, the most famous piece probably ever played. But it was an incredible event because it was the first time it was ever sung in Ukrainian.

How did this happen? I just actually decided about three weeks ago. I knew that we were performing Beethoven 9. I prepared all the music. Of course, it was ready. And then I decided on a whim, wait. We should be singing this in Ukrainian. And why, you ask. Well, it's obvious. Putin is trying to silence - not only obliterate the country, but he's trying to silence its culture and its language.

SIMON: What do you observe in the audience and, for that matter, in your orchestra members when you play?-What is there a kind of pride that bristles over everyone?

WILSON: Oh, yes. Well said. I mean, we're bonded by our music. Our souls and hearts and passion is together because we're fighting. We're fighting a war. This orchestra I created to help the musicians, of course, to give them a voice and to give them a feel of pride about their country and their culture. But also, it's tremendously important for the people in Ukraine to feel like they are supported. We're a symbol for them. And we hear this from our families there. We hear this from people around the world who say thank you. And, you know, it's the least I can do. And it's this incredible bond, therefore. And you can imagine, last year it was very new. We were all learning and discovering each other. But this year, even from the first day the orchestra was playing, like, we never parted from one another. It's much more intense, even. The mission is all the more important for these soldiers of music, I like to call them.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR: ODE TO JOY")

SIMON: I just imagining that when you strike up "Ode To Joy," the emotional impact must be just extraordinary.

WILSON: Well, I have to say, I definitely had to hold back tears in my eyes when I was performing it. And of course, I sing with the chorus, the words. There's a special element that came with this translation. It was inspired by Leonard Bernstein when he performed Beethoven's 9th in Berlin when the wall came down...

SIMON: Yeah.

WILSON: ...It was a special change to the text. Instead of freude - of course, is ode to joy - he changed it to freiheit, which is freedom - ode to freedom. So I decided that we would change the text from freude to slava.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR: ODE TO JOY")

UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA: (Singing in Ukrainian).

WILSON: Slava is the word that glorifies Ukraine. It's their traditional saying - slava Ukraini, heroyam slava. We could have said freedom, but slava is glory to Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR: ODE TO JOY")

UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA: (Singing in Ukrainian).

WILSON: Glory to the brave people. Glory to the people who are fighting and sacrificing their lives to save their country and fight for their brothers and sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKRAINIAN FREEDOM ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR: ODE TO JOY")

SIMON: Maestra, what do you think music can do in times like this?

WILSON: Well, music expresses all emotions - right? - All of the things that we're feeling, all of the suffering. At the same time, there's so much beauty. I mean, I look at musicians' faces. And we're so blessed to have this common language of music where we can share and channel these feelings in a way that is very healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2")

WILSON: The tears aren't physical. The tears are through the music, and the screams are through the music. You know, I feel every day when I wake up and I'm reading the paper and follow the news, there's so much bottled up in you. And music is the vehicle for letting everything come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2")

SIMON: May I ask, Maestra, do you still have relatives in Ukraine?

WILSON: Yes, I have two cousins. One is fighting, and the other, his sister - she's a teacher in Chernivtsi. I speak with her three times a day to hear how she's doing, to give her also hope. It helps her to know that I'm out here fighting on the cultural front for Ukraine. So when they tell me thank you and that when they get up early at 4 in the morning and have to go fight the war or deal with the air raids going on, they feel like there's a reason to get up in the morning because there are good people out there fighting for the future of Ukraine as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Keri-Lynn Wilson is the conductor of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra. Thank you so much for being with us.

WILSON: Thank you so very much. And slava Ukraini.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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