By Brian Wise | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
When Yo-Yo Ma reposted a video of a cellist performing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 amid the rubble-strewn streets and blown-out buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the seven-minute clip went viral, drawing news media coverage and interest from around the globe. The cellist in the video, Denys Karachevtsev, was unfazed by the sudden attention.
“At the time, nothing seemed strange,” Karachevtsev recalls in a phone interview from Berlin, where he is currently based. He likened the situation to being in a kind of surreal film. “When you’re on the front line in the middle of a war, you have absolutely a different version of all the things that happen. I saw my video posted by Yo-Yo Ma, and I said, ‘Okay, we still exist in this strange film.’”
Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted other cellists to appear before the cameras. In July, Anders Adlercreutz, Finland’s minister for European affairs and an amateur cellist, too, shared his video performance of the patriotic Ukrainian song “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow” to mark the war’s 500th day. The performance quickly drew more than a million views and prompted a response from Moscow: Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, mocked it on state television as a case of NATO grandstanding.
But it is not only on the Ukrainian side of the conflict that one finds political cellists. In Russia, Sergei Roldugin is a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who has held posts in the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and served on the cello jury of the 2023 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Though he has no viral videos to his credit, he has gained a notoriety as “Putin’s Wallet,” for his role in safeguarding the Russian leader’s wealth in offshore companies registered in his name.
The image emblazoned on the public consciousness of a musician performing in war-ravaged streets or in the halls of power is so often that of a cellist. The instrument has attracted its share of activists, iconoclasts, and rebellious spirits, from Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich to Vedran Smailović, dubbed the “Cellist of Sarajevo.” Theories abound: Does the instrument attract activist personalities in the first place? Or do cellists grow into such extramusical roles as they mature artistically?
Karachevtsev, a 31-year-old cello professor at Kharkiv’s music conservatory, created the videos to raise funds and awareness after Russia’s invasion. “After the first two weeks, when I saw some buildings damaged by Russian rockets and artillery, I got a picture of playing music in these ruins,” he explains. “It became an idea of how we could help, not only as volunteers but as artists and professionals.” With videographer Oleksandr Osipov, Karachevtsev developed a performance-art project, appearing on the steps of Kharkiv’s conservatory and in a battered office building with sweeping views over the city.
“We had a special permission from our military to visit this place,” he recalls of the latter structure. “But it was the most scary moment of the video shoots because when we started to film, one of the rockets fell maybe 500 meters from us. But we didn’t stop.” The videos included links to a charity that aims to raise money for Ukraine’s armed forces, “from clothes to cars and drones.”
Cellists Build on Shifting Roles
The cellist Mike Block, who performs in the Silkroad Ensemble and other cross-cultural groups, called Karachevtsev’s effort “an incredible statement of the power of culture and the power of humans to maintain their identity and their sense of purpose, even in the face of tragedy.” Block suggests that the activist impulse in cellists starts with their shifting musical roles. “We are often supportive, and we are often leading,” he says. “That sensitivity develops as a kind of awareness among people who have spent their lives studying the cello.”
Block has spearheaded his own charitable projects, including the nonpartisan group Play for the Vote, which organizes live music outside of polling places on election days. For the 2020 election, some 1,500 musicians performed at polls in 48 states. The goal is to make election days less stressful as voters wait to cast their ballots. “In a perfect world, every voter in America would know that if there is going to be a line to vote, they’ll have live music to entertain them while they’re there,” he says.
Block recalls an early childhood memory of seeing the televised performances of Mstislav Rostropovich performing in Berlin as the wall was being torn down in 1989. Rostropovich had been a constant thorn in the side of the Soviet government. He once sheltered the dissident novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in his family’s country house—one of many gestures that led to travel restrictions and canceled concerts. After fleeing to Paris in 1974, Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were branded “ideological renegades” and the Soviet Union revoked their citizenship. It was restored in 1990.
Rostropovich was hardly the first cellist to protest war and political repression. The Catalan Pablo Casals fled Spain during its civil war in the late 1930s, saying he would not return until democracy returned. Living in Prades, France, he gave benefit concerts to raise money for the Spanish Republican cause and wrote letters to charities, journalists, and politicians. After the war, he refused to perform in the United States and other countries that recognized General Franco’s government (he made an exception to perform for John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1961).
Paul Tortelier, a noted pacifist, shunned the US during the Korean and Vietnam wars and once put his performing career on hiatus to live on a kibbutz in Israel. János Starker left his native Hungary after World War II, and though he returned for performances in 1971, he affirmed his position. “Obviously I did not approve of the Hungarian government’s policies, but I do not play for governments,” he wrote. “I play for the people.”
And two months into the Bosnian War in 1992, Vedran Smailović, a cellist in the Sarajevo Opera, began performing in the deserted, bombed-out streets of his home city. Nicknamed the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” his activism was chronicled in song tributes and a fictionalized novel.
Playing amid Violence in Baghdad
Smailović’s actions were echoed in 2015 by the cellist Karim Wasfi, who gave an impromptu performance amid the wreckage of a car bombing that killed ten people in Baghdad. “I couldn’t accept the fact that we had car bombs again,” Wasfi says from Baghdad, where he is the music director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. “My action was to take my instrument out and to fight back by playing in the streets, not onstage.”
Onlookers filmed Wasfi’s performance—featuring an original piece called Baghdad Mourning—and the video went viral, vaulting him into the global spotlight. “It was a reaction simply to the act of aggression,” he says. “By doing what I did, I was [promoting] civility against uncertainty and violence.”
Wasfi doesn’t believe that he could have had the same impact with another instrument. “The cello has a wide range of sounds and frequencies that extend from the bass all the way to the soprano, which is in many ways close to the human voice. It correlates with the natural resonance and wavelengths that we have in the brain.” He adds, “We have lots of repertoire that empowers the cellist.”
Block offers another theory about the cellist-activist role: that because the instrument did not historically travel as widely as the violin and fiddle, it embedded itself in many traditions, and offered more of a blank slate. “Because the cello doesn’t have an established role in so many styles, there’s a lot more freedom to explore,” he says. “Being able to find one’s way without the baggage of expectation, I think, is a really creative space for cellists to be branching out into.”
An Aura of Gravitas
Seen another way, the seated cellist who plants an endpin in a rubble-strewn street carries a gravitas that a nimbler instrumentalist may lack. Still, cellists, like all artists, must grapple with warnings to avoid political controversy. As Helena Groot asked in a 2019 Van magazine essay, “Is speaking out for what you believe in a professional liability, warned against by the boards of donor-funded concert halls and social media managers alike?” What’s more, “Can classical musicians electrify public opinion in the way that Casals did?”
Yo-Yo Ma is among those who have taken up the anti-war and humanitarian mantle held by Casals, who was an early mentor and supporter. At each stop on his 36-city Bach tour in 2018–19, Ma took part in a “day of action,” appearing in places like a border crossing between Texas and Mexico and a community center for immigrants in Leipzig, Germany. More recently, he has made gestures of solidarity with Ukraine, playing Bach cello suites on the sidewalk outside the Russian Embassy in Washington. A favorite encore is “Song of the Birds,” a Catalonian folk song popularized by Casals.
When describing his various priorities, Ma has often paraphrased the words of the Catalan cellist, as he did in a 2019 commencement address at Dartmouth College: “I am a human being first, a musician second, a cellist third.”