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3 April 2024

Natalia Ponomarchuk: “War has its sounds. I recognise them wherever they appear”

The Ukrainian conductor on fleeing Kyiv, Mendelssohn and why “war shows the true faces of people”.

By Edward Docx

Natalia Ponomarchuk was in Odesa when the war began. She was with the National Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsing the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”, and Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale”. The concert was scheduled for the evening of 25 February 2022. But, in the middle of the night of the 24th, she was woken by the sudden boom and reverberation of powerful explosions. Odesa was being bombed. In the darkness, all she could hear was the sounds of war: the low whine of the missiles just before they hit; the rumble of stricken buildings; sirens; chaos.

The concert never happened. Instead, by morning, she was at the bus station. She had a plane ticket home to Kyiv. But the skies were closed. The trains were also impossible. Nobody wanted to commit to any form of transport that might be targeted. She was desperate to get back to be with her elderly mother in Kyiv. There was so little information. The rumours were that Russian soldiers were pouring across the borders in great numbers. The journey was fraught, anxious. She had the feeling of everything in her life changing fundamentally in real time; the passing of an era in a single day.

The bus changed its route as they drew closer to Kyiv, because of the bombing. She could hear explosions again. The other side of the road was choked with the traffic of people leaving. Her side was empty. The bus stopped for petrol. She watched the driver. He was huddled on his phone by the kiosk. When he came back towards the bus, she could see that he was crying.

Worse was to come. The apartment she shared with her elderly mother was in the very centre of Kyiv – a heavily timbered historical building. The nearest underground station was too far for her mother to reach and so, every time there were sirens, they would get down to the basement together.

Night after night, they would listen to the wail of the sirens, the blare of the warnings, the dull thud of the bombs. They were afraid of being directly hit, of course. People were directly hit all the time – at random, or so it seemed. But they were also afraid of an indirect hit. The basement was really for service purposes only and had narrow and difficult access. Inside, it was full of ancient, thick-gauge pipes carrying boiling water for the whole apartment block. A rupture to any one of these pipes, and they would be scalded in their improvised beds. They were afraid, too, that if the damage was more serious, they might drown in boiling water before they could escape. Meanwhile, their building was not far from the main gas works – and, given all the wood in their building, they knew their basement could easily become a lethal fire trap.

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They lived like this for a month – the situation in central Kyiv ever more difficult. But then two things happened. The first was that they were told to leave the centre altogether one night, because a particularly heavy bombardment was expected. The second was that the Ponomarchuks began to experience “this very dark irrational feeling”.

Natalia’s mother started to see things at night: military figures that she swore were in the flat and that she asked her daughter about in the morning. “We didn’t know about this at the time, but this was when the Russian troops were committing war crimes in Bucha and Irpin. I couldn’t describe this feeling, exactly, but it was if some immense dark energy had manifested in the air.”

Bucha and Irpin were only about 20 miles away. They decided to evacuate Kyiv. Ponomarchuk’s mother suffered two heart attacks, but she made it to Germany, where she lives now. Natalia came to London. But, of course, there’s no real “escaping”. Many of her friends are fighting. Her godson, the only son of her closest friends, is 22 and is on the front line. Soon after they left Kyiv, one of Ponomarchuk’s close friends, the conductor of the Lviv National Opera, Ivan Cherednichenko, found out that the Russians had shot his parents in Irpin. His father was elderly and paralysed. His mother had divorced his father and they lived separately. She had moved back in to look after him when the war broke out. The Russians murdered them both in their family home.

Ponomarchuk is one of the great Ukrainian conductors. In 2001 she was named an Honoured Artist of Ukraine. She was the resident conductor of the country’s National Symphony Orchestra from 2009 to 2011, and she has appeared with top orchestras all over the world – in Spain, Germany, the US, China, Estonia, Lithuania, Brazil and Turkey. She has been the chief conductor of the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra since 2018 and each month she returns to Ukraine to conduct in Kyiv, Odesa and Dnipro. Earlier this year, she conducted an acclaimed performance of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony (his “Scottish symphony”) in the UK three times with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Over the course of our conversations, she is in London, Ukraine, Turkey and Germany.

Everything, everything, everything has been changed by the war, she says. Except, of course, the scores of the great works she performs. We talk about this interrelation – about how her feelings for the music are different as a consequence of her experiences.

“War shows the true faces of people,” she says. “In the face of mortal danger, people change their behaviour. And you become a witness to the incomparable nobility and courage of some people – and, on the other hand, the betrayal and indifference of others. An important experience is to remain human.” And there is nothing more human than music in all its forms; indeed, music may well be the distilled expression of our better nature.

We talk about how the scores do not – in one sense – stay the same at all. Far from it. “The war has changed me and, yes, this has deeply affected my perception of music. All feelings became sharper: pain, joy, love, happiness, beauty – all categories of life became sharp and intense. The feeling [of conducting now] is very unusual – as if you put on glasses and suddenly you see all the details, all the lines. Beauty has lost the feeling of calm contemplation, for example. On the contrary, the feeling is now that behind [the beautiful passages] there is an immense tragedy somewhere.”

She quotes the Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: “True beauty is blooming on the edge of catastrophe.”

Certainly, beauty has become contiguous with suffering and horror – but, more than this, Ponomarchuk now hears the report of war in composers’ works where she did not before. We forget that so many European composers worked against the backdrop of conflict – if not in their immediate location, then somewhere not so far away in time or place. “I know now that war has its sounds, and I recognise these sounds wherever they appear,” she says. “In any music… the endless human war is present under different guises.”

An example of this, she explains, is right there in the last movement of the Scottish symphony she had just been conducting in the UK. Felix Mendelssohn started work on this piece on a tour of Scotland in the summer of 1829, but struggled with it and set it aside. He came back to it at the start of the 1840s and completed the work in the January of 1842 in Berlin. Interestingly, he did not overtly refer to it as “Scottish” later on, and critics have sometimes pointed out that the name occludes as much as it illuminates. Indeed, the score for the last movement was originally labelled “Allegro guerriero” – fast and warlike.

“In Mendelssohn’s language, this movement is a description of war,” says Ponomarchuk. (Beneath the many textures, the music is full of fanfare and agitated marching rhythms.) “Everywhere you hear the sound of the battlefield. You can almost see it – as if in a wide, panoramic film shot. And then, towards the end, you suddenly get this solo clarinet followed by a solo bassoon, and they start to rise up and soar above the destruction. The strings are almost silent playing just one note. Everything feels absolutely empty. You know – you just know – that nobody has survived. It’s a sound like the smoke after bombing; as if the clarinet and the bassoon are the only souls left, and so it’s also a lament, a requiem. Then Mendelssohn just stops the music altogether. There’s a pause. Nothing. Like the idea of minute’s silence. And then comes the coda, which is really a prayer.”

Ponomarchuk tells me that now, when she conducts in Ukraine and there is bombing, the audience and the musicians go off to the shelters together. They wait all together. Then, together, when they can, they go back to the concert hall and finish the music.

[See also: Music in a time of war]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown