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Campus Project focuses on Belarus and Ukraine

Anastassia Boutsko
September 6, 2022

Dissident musicians like the now-banned flash mob group "Free Choir" from Belarus are at the heart of DW's Campus Project, bringing young people together in a musical vision of the future.

A woman in red with a music note stand conducts a choir while the audience watches
Galina Kazimirovskaya conducts the Volny Choir from BelarusImage: Volny Chor

For more than 20 years, DW's Campus Project and the Beethovenfest Bonn has provided young musicians from all over the world a platform to meet.

On September 8 this year, there will be a special encounter: Musicians who have fled Belarus will meet their peers from Ukraine and Germany.

"Campus is simply a concert like no other," says Thomas Scheider, who is overseeing the project for the Beethovenfest for the eighth time. "It's not like the usual concerts, where most ensembles arrive with a fixed program and flawlessly deliver it. With the Campus Project, everything has to be thought through from the beginning: Who to invite, why, what fits together — or what doesn't fit so well together that it becomes interesting again."

View of the plenary hall of the former West German parliament in the city of Bonn
The plenary hall of the former West German parliament is the concert venue Image: Anastassia Boutsko/DW

The concert's venue this year is also unique. Campus 2022 will be the first and only concert in the history of the Beethovenfest to take place in the plenary hall of the former Bundestag, the parliament of the former West Germany, a scene of post-war German democracy.

'Part of Europe, part of free thinking'

This time Beethoven's music melds with vocal compositions from Belarus, Ukraine and Germany; from folklore to contemporary.

Songs of freedom and protest as well as peace hymns written by Ukrainian, Belarusian and German composers entwine the four movements of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," with its revolutionary gesture. "There's something so direct and something almost emotional about that work that immediately jumps out at the audience," says project director Scheider. "Of course, it's not a street song, but I think it's still very catchy."

Young men and women sit on chairs and hold music sheets in their hands, while a woman in white conducts them
Musicians from the three countries have been rehearsing togetherImage: Thomas Scheider

"The purpose of this project is to build a musical bridge between the cultures of my homeland, Belarus, Ukraine, with which we all sympathize, and Germany," says the project's musical director, conductor Vitali Alekseenok. He explains that the pieces range from the past to the present, from the works of national poets and composers of the 19th and 20th centuries to the works of contemporary composers of the three countries.

"We can already do a lot with art, with music. We want to show that as Belarusians and Ukrainians we are and want to be a part of Europe, a part of free thinking."

After actively participating in the protests in Minsk in the summer of 2020, about which he published a book in Germany titled "The White Days of Minsk," Alekseenok can no longer return to his homeland.

He shares this fate with other Belarusian musicians involved in the Campus Project, especially the singers of the Volny Choir (or "Free Choir").

Through spontaneous performances and flash mobs in public spaces, the Volny Choir became a symbol of peaceful protest in Belarus. After the movement was brutally suppressed by Alexander Lukashenko's regime, it was declared an "enemy organization" and most of the choir members had to flee. The Volny Choir will be coming to Bonn with its leader Galina Kazimirovskaya, who is currently living in exile in Poland.

A man dressed in a grey t-shirt and with a red and white draped around him, stands in front of a barb wire fence watched by soldiers in the background
Conductor Vitali Alekseenok seen here in Minsk in August 2020 Image: Vitali Alekseenok

"When we fled two years ago, we all hoped that we would soon be able to return home," says Kazimirovskaya. "But it doesn't look like that. In Belarus we face arrest and prison sentences of several years. But we keep fighting by continuing to sing our songs."

Ukraine will be represented at the Campus Project by the Sophia Chamber Choir from Kyiv. "We see ourselves as ambassadors of Ukrainian culture," choir director Olekseii Shamrytskyi told DW. "At the beginning of the war, we sang in bunkers for frightened people. Now we want to bring our fighting spirit to the outside world as well."

To participate in DW's Campus Project and the Beethovenfest, the male choir members received a special permit allowing those who are subject to military service to leave the country.

The third member of the group is the Gewandhaus Youth Choir from Leipzig, under the direction of Frank-Steffen Elster.

The three choirs had already rehearsed together in Warsaw in the run-up to the Campus Project. "We try to express musically and artistically the idea of a free life, tolerance and democracy by making music together," Elster told DW.

Members of the Volny Choir wearing eye masks sing in front of a church altar while they are conducted by a woman wearing a white hoodie
The Volny Choir performing with eye masks and hoodies in the colors of the Belarus opposition, in Poland in 2022Image: Volha Shukaila/Sopa/Zuma/dpa/picture alliance

Beethoven: the common denominator

When it finally debuts in front of an audience on September 8 in Bonn, the performances by the project choir consisting of singers from the three countries will unite with the instrumental movements of Beethoven's symphony.

Various versions of the work will be performed in chamber music arrangements. The arrangements are by four different composers from Beethoven's time to the present.

Ukrainian composer Maxim Kolomiiets contributed to the arrangement of the third movement: "Of course, it is not easy to add something to Beethoven's work," the composer admits. "But I asked myself the question: How would Beethoven have composed today, at a time when a ruler is in power in Russia whom Napoleon couldn't even hold a candle to, when war is again raging in Europe?"

The four parts of the symphony will be played by Belarusian, Ukrainian and German instrumentalists, including members of the German National Youth Orchestra.

A woman in a brown trenchcoat makes a heart sign with her hands, copying the street art on the wall behind her which depicts a woman also making the same heart sign
A heart for Maria: Tatiana Khomich is fighting for her sisterImage: New Docs/WDR

A work for imprisoned activist Maria Kolesnikova

A central element of the Campus program is traditionally also a commissioned piece, which DW gives to the related host country. This year, the composer Olga Podgayskayage, who fled from Minsk, took on the task. It is a piece for both a choir and orchestra entitled "Nebo Maryi" ("Mary's Heaven").

The work is dedicated to musician and a leader of Belarus' opposition movement, Maria Kolesnikova, whom the composer knows well personally from their joint studies at the Minsk Conservatory.

Kolesnikova made a name for herself in the music scene as a flautist, singer and project designer before joining the political movement seeking democratic transformation in Belarus. For the past two years, Kolesnikova has been serving an 11-year prison sentence imposed by the Lukashenko regime.

"When you think about where Maria is now and what her situation is, you can only cry," says Podgayskayage, who lives in Warsaw. "Because evil has a paralyzing effect, freezing every creative impulse. But that's exactly what must not happen. To survive, we have to be strong and support each other."

A black and white protrait of a woman with dark hair looking forlornly off to the side
Composer Olga Podgayskayage fled from MinskImage: Maxim Krugly

Kolesnikova's sister Tatiana Khomich, who had attended the rehearsals of the Campus Choir in Warsaw, thanked everyone involved. "She knows about the project and the work dedicated to her, and she is very touched."

"Making or even listening to music is not allowed in the detention camp. We tried some time ago to deliver a flute to Maria in prison and, of course, failed. But 'her heaven' [referring to "Maria's Heaven," the title of the work dedicated to her, editor's note] — she sees it even behind bars."

This piece was originally published in German.