Ukraine’s musical charm offensive in Lugano

The Ukraine Recovery Conference included a concert by the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana led by conductor Krzystof Urbańksi and accompanied by Ukraine’s most acclaimed pianist Oleksiy Botvinov. ( Credit: Aylin Elci)

Sopilka and telenka notes filled the cobbled streets of Lugano, Switzerland this week. These traditional Ukrainian flutes and their heady and high-pitched music tunes, part of the cultural charm offensive planned for the attendees of the Ukraine Recovery Conference, 4-5 July.

While three concerts were planned on the first evening, during the day, within the walls of the congress centre, music was also given a small but prominent place. At the official opening session, a violin interlude composed by Ukrainian Miroslav Skorik separated President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s opening address from that of Ursula Van der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

“A cultural programme has been organised alongside this conference, as a sign of solidarity with the refugees and those that have remained in Ukraine,” said Giada Marsadri, who oversaw the moderation of the session and who works at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture. “Ukrainian culture is rich and diverse”. The programme was organised by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs which led the overall conference.

Tickets for “Music for Freedom”, the evening’s first concert at the LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura were nearly sold out by Monday afternoon. But come the evening, very few of the 900 seats in the venue were filled and ushers were instructing attendees to sit wherever they wanted.

The Orchestra della Svizzera italiana led by conductor Krzystof Urbańksi and accompanied by Ukraine’s most acclaimed pianist Oleksiy Botvinov were on the programme.

Undeterred by the mostly empty seats, an Ambassador Anna Ifkovits,
Head of the Eurasia Division for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, took the stage to introduce this “new cultural joint venture”.

“Music has a potency that defies politics”, she said, citing Nelson Mandela and reminding the audience that Ukraine and Switzerland celebrated 30 years of bilateral relations a few months ago. After stressing the fact that politics, business and culture go hand in hand, she invited the small crowd to “be carried away by music and the hope of peace in Europe”.

Valentin Silvestrov’s “Prayer for Ukraine” opened the concert with notes similar to John Lennon’s Imagine. At about the same time, 600 metres away from the LAC, a more relaxed musical programme garnered a bigger audience.

Ukrainian folk band DakhaBrakha played in front of a large audience in Lugano's the Riforma Piazza. (Credit: Aylin Elci)

Ukrainian folk band Dakhabrakha, which had a show in Glastonbury the previous night, played at an open-air stage set in the heart of the city, off the Riforma Piazza. “It is a special honour for us to perform at [the] Ukraine Recovery Conference 2022 in Lugano, Switzerland. We believe that our country will eventually become the best country to live in, at least for us Ukrainians,” said the group on its Instagram page.

On stage, the group was preaching to the choir a crowd full of blue and yellow flags and outfits to arm the country. Fighter jets on Russian flags were also among the visuals that reminded all present about the situation. But by the time DJ Rustam Babaev took the stage at around 10.30pm, those curious to listen to Ukrainian techno – which turned out to be disco – were few.

Still, the music seems to have convinced the local police, which nevertheless had to put an end to the impromptu after party organised by Ukrainians. Sasha, who was among them recounts their reaction: “It was really fun, we went to a bar and started playing Ukrainian music until 3am, at which point the police came and said: ‘We like the music, but you have to turn it off!’”