Scarred by War, a Ukrainian Children’s Choir Finds Hope in Music

When air-raid sirens sounded in Kyiv recently, the Shchedryk Children’s Choir, which was deep in rehearsal for a Christmas program, went into action.

More than two dozen young singers, carrying sheet music and backpacks, rushed from the Palace of Children and Youth, their longtime practice space, to a nearby bomb shelter. There, using cellphones as flashlights, they resumed their singing, filling the cold, cramped space with folk songs and carols until the sirens faded.

“I was scared, but I was also hopeful,” recalled Polina Fedorchenko, a 16-year-old member of the choir. “We knew that if we could get through this, we could get through anything.”

The children of the Shchedryk choir, which will perform at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, have been hit hard by the war. They have lost friends and relatives in the fighting; watched as Russian bombs have devastated schools, churches and city streets; and grappled with the anxiety and trauma of war.

But the choristers have also forged a determination to use music as a way to heal Ukraine and promote their culture around the world.

At Carnegie, the choir’s 56 members — 51 girls and five boys, ages 11 to 25 — will perform traditional songs and carols alongside other Ukrainian artists in “Notes From Ukraine,” a program sponsored in part by the Ukrainian foreign ministry. Proceeds will go to United24, a government-run platform that is raising money to repair damaged infrastructure.

Clockwise, from top left, members of the choir including: Anastasiia Rusina and Taisiia Poliakova; Polina Fedorchenko; Bogdana Novikova; and Kateryna Rohova.Credit…Lila Barth for The New York Times

The concert will also celebrate the centennial of the North American premiere at Carnegie Hall of “Carol of the Bells,” by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. (The name of the choir comes from the Ukrainian title for the music.)

The choir hopes that the concert will help bring attention to Russia’s continuing attacks, including its recent efforts to damage Ukraine’s supply of electricity, heat and water, threatening a new kind of humanitarian crisis this winter.

“It has been exhausting,” said Mykhailo Kostyna, a 16-year-old singer. “We’re just happy now that we can share Ukraine’s culture and spirit with the world.”

The State of the War

  • A Pivotal Point: Ukraine is on the offensive, but with about one-fifth of its territory still occupied by Russian forces, there is still a long way to go, and the onset of winter will bring new difficulties.
  • Ukraine’s Electric Grid: As many Ukrainians head into winter without power or water, Western officials say that rebuilding Ukraine’s battered energy infrastructure needs to be considered a second front in the war.
  • A Bloody Vortex : Even as they have celebrated successes elsewhere, Ukrainian forces in the small eastern city of Bakhmut have endured relentless Russian attacks. And the struggle to hold it is only intensifying.
  • Dnipro River: A volunteer Ukrainian special forces team has been conducting secret raids under the cover of darkness, traveling across the strategic waterway that has become the dividing line of the southern front.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many members of the choir scattered across the country. Some, seeking shelter and security, fled abroad.

The choir, which has been a training ground for Ukrainian singers since its founding in 1971, held virtual rehearsals to keep the ensemble together. The choristers stayed in touch on social media, where they shared upbeat songs as well as clips of practice sessions, and checked in on one another.

“The choir kept my connection to Ukraine alive,” said Taisiia Poliakova, 15, who fled to Germany shortly after the invasion. “It gave me a safe environment amid all the madness of war.”

“These songs remind me of the pain,” one choir member said, “but they also help me somehow deal with the pain.”Credit…Lila Barth for The New York Times

Learning new songs at home was a challenge that provided an escape from the constant ringing of air-raid sirens. It also gave choir members an outlet for the intense emotions they were experiencing.

Oleksandra Lutsak, 20, said the war had deeply affected her music. Now, when she sings, she said, she sees the faces of five friends who died in the war. Sometimes, she imagines the experience of a friend captured by Russian soldiers. When rehearsing folk songs, she envisions “destroyed homes with no roofs, collapsed walls, everything burned down — and people standing around who have nowhere to spend the winter.”

“These songs remind me of the pain,” she said, “but they also help me somehow deal with the pain.”

Other singers have struggled to look beyond the chaos of war. Polina Holtseva, 15, said she sometimes felt she was living in a constant state of fear. She was pained to see friends and relatives endure physical injuries and economic hardships because of the conflict.

“I feel like I’ve suffered so many psychological traumas I can’t even speak of them,” she said. “My nervous system is all over the place. I feel like my whole world has been turned upside down.”

Clockwise, from top left, the singers: Mykhailo Kostyra; Uliana Sukach-Kochetkova; the twin sisters Marharyta and Kira Kupchyk; and Varvara Avotynsh.Credit…Lila Barth for The New York Times

In August, the Shchedryk choir reunited for a series of concerts in Copenhagen. Then, this fall, as it prepared for its Carnegie debut, the choir rehearsed in Kyiv for the first time since the start of the war.

The recent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure brought new challenges. Rehearsals were often interrupted by sirens, and frequent power outages meant long stretches without light.

“It was in those moments that we felt the most responsibility to keep practicing, because this was a testament to our dedication to our craft,” Fedorchenko said.

Because of the war, the choir left Ukraine on Nov. 19 for Warsaw, where they were given rehearsal space inside the Chopin University of Music and obtained visas to travel to the United States.

Marianna Sablina, the choir’s artistic director and chief conductor, whose mother founded the ensemble, said that the Carnegie concert, which was planned before the invasion, is now “even more momentous, given the struggles we are facing.”

The choir is one of several Ukrainian ensembles to go abroad since the invasion, as part of efforts to highlight the country’s cultural identity. The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, an ensemble of refugees who fled the war and musicians who stayed behind, toured Europe and the United States in the summer. The Kyiv City Ballet performed in many American cities this fall.

The Shchedryk choir arrived in New York this week with a mix of excitement and nervousness, uncertain whether the performance would resonate with an American audience. They brought Ukrainian flags, T-shirts and souvenirs to give to new friends.

In New York, they have a busy schedule: rehearsals at local churches as well as visits to tourist destinations including Times Square and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On Wednesday, they gathered at Grand Central Terminal to sing “Carol of the Bells.”

Marharyta and Kira Kupchyk, 14-year-old twins from Kyiv, said they felt relieved to have some distance from the war while in New York. But they said they were still growing accustomed to the enormity of the city.

“In Kyiv, you can walk easier — you can even dance down the streets,” Marharyta said. “But in New York, it’s not like that.”

In between rehearsals and sightseeing, the twins checked social media apps for news of the war and sent messages to family and friends in Ukraine. They said they worried about their father, who has been out of touch because he recently started military training in Kyiv.

“I hope we can help make sure this war will end soon,” Kira said.

Marianna Sablina, the artistic director of the Shchedryk choir, preparing the singers for their performance in New York.Credit…Lila Barth for The New York Times
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