Alexander Hornostai is the managing director and producer of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, which concludes its major UK tour in Norwich on Sunday. Here, he explains how travelling to the UK has been no easy task – and how they are learning to live for today
What is your musical background?
I was born into a Ukrainian musical family. My father was trumpeter, as was his father, and my mother was children’s choir choirmaster, and her father was a village church choirmaster in village church. Growing up, I studied as a pianist in various music schools, and graduated as a pianist from Zhytomyr Music College and from National Kyiv Music Academy.
What is the history of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine?
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (NSOU) was formed by Ukraine’s Council of Ministers in 1918 not long after the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.
Back then, the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra (as the NSOU was known at the time), was encouraged to play home-grown music, so long as the composers expressed absolute loyalty to Soviet goals and policies, but even that was no guarantee of safety.
Throughout all this however, the Kyiv-based orchestra continued to send a sustaining message to its own people, through energetic, outward endorsements of all the latest Kremlin edicts.
The NSOU is now one of the country’s principal orchestras and recognised as one of the finest symphony orchestras in Eastern Europe. We have released more than 100 critically acclaimed recordings since 1993 featuring both Ukrainian and international repertoire. The UK 2023 tour will be our biggest UK tour to date, and after last playing here in May 2001.
Where is the 90-strong orchestra based and has rehearsing been a challenge for you all during the ongoing conflict?
The orchestra has remained in Kyiv and, since the war began, we have suffered from missile attacks. During air raid signals, rehearsals and concerts have to be stopped, and as we go down into the bomb shelter. But though it’s dangerous at times, our families and homes remain in Ukraine and we don’t want to leave. The orchestra is part of the cultural front, and we are fighting on this front, proudly carrying the banner of cultural victory.
How significant is this tour of the UK?
We are excited to return to the UK for the first time in 22 years and we are deeply grateful to the UK government, the 17 tour venues and UK tour promoters for enabling this ambitious tour to take place.
The UK is helping Ukraine a lot in this war and the orchestra would like to thank the UK for its support and also establish cultural ties for the future. The UK tour is another great opportunity to tell the whole world about the Ukrainian people, its culture, and its traditions through music.
Recognising the significance of the UK tour and to demonstrate the UK’s support of Ukraine during the conflict, we were invited to the House of Commons last week to meet with the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and other senior Parliamentarians. The UK Home Office also kindly agreed to waive visa fees for all 90 members of the orchestra for the tour.
Was getting to the UK a logistical challenge?
Yes – travelling to the UK was no easy task. With no flights in and out of the country, the entire orchestra had to take a 20-hour coach journey across two borders through the war zone to Warsaw, Poland, where we then boarded a flight to Heathrow, which was kindly supported by British Airways.
How important will it be to you all to showcase Ukrainian music and culture?
This tour is a unique and significant opportunity for us as Ukrainian musicians to wrestle the spotlight from Russia and showcase some of Ukraine’s most talented and renowned musicians. We are fighting for the recognition of Ukrainian culture all over the world.
Ukraine is not Russia; Ukrainian music is not Russian. It is special, original, self-sufficient, and beautiful. We have renounced all Russian music and art without hesitation – by replacing it with Ukrainian music we are trying to crystallize a sense of pride for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
The tour finishes in Norwich – what can the Theatre Royal audience expect on the night?
It will be a joyous celebration of music, both Ukrainian and otherwise, and we hope our performance will show just how grateful we are to all our UK audiences, promoters and venues for their support.
It will also be emotional – every time we perform now, we convey what is in our hearts through music. On the one hand, there is pain, sadness, suffering, and on the other hand, faith in the victory of Ukraine and the prosperous future of our country. We have had to learn to live for today, in the present moment. Please join us for the finale of our tour in Norwich as we fight on our front, proudly carrying the banner of cultural victory!
What are your hopes and dreams for the future – for both the orchestra and Ukraine?
We wait in anticipation for the end of the war, but until then we are focused on touring, keeping Ukraine in people’s minds, and sending out a clear message of defiance. We hope to keep sharing our beautiful culture and Ukrainian music with people around the world, especially music by Borys Lyatoshynsky, whose works we play on this tour.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine will perform at the Norwich Theatre Royal on Sunday November 5. Visit norwichtheatre.org. For more information, go to: National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine – IMG Artists. To donate, visit Crowdfunding to Support the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine musicians in their time of need on JustGiving.
Main image (pictured left to right): Roman Oleksiienko (trumpeter), Volodyrmyr Sirenko (conductor) and Alexander Hornostoi (managing director and producer) of the NSOU in the Houses of Parliament on October 18 (copyright Strike Communications)