What is it like to be a cellist caught in the war in Ukraine? Earlier this week, we spoke with Ukrainian cellist Vlad Primakov to find out.
I’m thrilled that well over 150 people from around the world have registered for our Ukrainian National Anthem Cello Project, spearheaded by our newest team member, Gill Tennant, to raise money for Ukrainians affected by the war. I was especially moved when I saw an entry from Vlad Primakov, cellist in the National Chamber Ensemble Kyiv Soloists, who expressed his gratitude for the project and told us, “Ukraine is my life!”
Vlad graciously corrected some mistakes in our sheet music, and we started corresponding. Although he and his family have lost their home in Kyiv, and he works himself to exhaustion every day as a volunteer, helping get supplies to those in need, he kindly agreed to meet with me via Zoom for an interview.
I wish the circumstances of our meeting were far different, but I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation about the cello. I am honored to have met such a talented musician and brave man as Vlad Primakov and look forward to following his career.
His story evokes tales of escape across Europe during WWII. However, in Vlad’s case, he struggled to return to Ukraine to keep his family safe. Although I am not highly sentimental in most conversations with cellists, I’ll admit that a few tears escaped my eyes as Vlad told me his story.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Meet Cellist Vlad Primakov
Thank you for doing this interview. First – are you and your family safe?
Yes – part of my family. My wife and my daughter are with me. We are in the west of Ukraine. So it’s pretty safe here – safer than our house in Kyiv right now.
What inspires you to play the cello?
When I play the cello, I don’t really need inspiration. It’s flowing from inside me. I play, and it is just like swimming in a pool. I don’t need inspiration; the music covers everything. So when I play, I just play. I switch off my mind and switch on my heart.
How did you first start playing the cello? Did you hear somebody else in your family play it?
No, actually, I am the first member of my family who plays the cello. To be honest, I didn’t choose the cello. I started playing when I was three years old. My parents just gave it to me, and we tried it. And I never thought of it, year by year. I grew more confident, and then I knew: “This is my instrument. That’s my child. That’s my baby.”
What cello and bow do you play?
My cello is an 1820 German copy of a [Giovanni] Paolo Maggini. It sounds beautiful. And the bow is by an unknown French master. I’m actually searching for a new bow – for one that sounds better.
I’ve played the same cello for about 12 years. My previous instrument was a Chinese cello, but it couldn’t give me enough sound. So I think that God sent me another cello. [My German cello] has so much more color I can use. It’s by an unknown maker – I would love to find out who made it.
Life Before the War
What was your life like as a cellist in Ukraine before the war?
Right before the war, I went to Italy with our orchestra. It was February 23. We expected to do the tour of Ukrainian music, and we played with some beautiful musicians from Italy. It was a great opportunity for us.
Before the war, I played a lot of concerts in Kyiv, especially in the last few years. I played some solo pieces with the orchestra and did some projects with different musicians. We could travel a lot. I traveled to a few countries and played some absolutely beautiful music. I can’t compare this to what is going on right now.
A Musical Family
Is your wife a musician as well?
Yes. She plays viola. All members of my family are musicians. I’m the second child in a family with five kids, and all my family play musical instruments.
Does your daughter like to listen to you play the cello and your wife play the viola?
She liked it even before she was born. My wife passed her exams in the National Academy of Ukraine, and when Diana played the viola – Lia, that’s her name – she would calm down and listen.
Right now, she’s so pleased when we put on the music. She loves when we sing, and she started singing, too. Even before she could speak, she was just singing. You know the song, “Jesus loves me,” – she started to sing the first part and the last part. I was thinking she confused some things. But then I realized how our brains work. We remember the first part and the last part, right? That’s what she sang. And then she was just laying and singing, trying and singing, and singing by herself. I was so grateful. Right now, she’s speaking well – much better than she used to.
How is your life as a cellist and family man different now with the war?
All I can think about right now is the safety of my family. To be honest, I’m really scared about what is happening right now. It fills my heart. I don’t think about the music, the cello. I don’t have any time or desire to think about it. I feel the pain of my people dying right now. I cannot create any more music or even play something.
When the war started, I was in Italy. The border was closed. We could not fly [back to Ukraine] because our flights were canceled. We also had a contract, so we had to play the concerts. I knew my wife was sitting in a bomb shelter with our two-year-old daughter, yet I had to play the music.
My heart was so broken. Every second, I just thought: “Right now, is my family safe?” So, to be honest, my music life, for now, is much, much different. Right now, I really appreciate the minutes when I can just sit and play the cello a little bit.
An Epic Journey Home – with a Cello
Travel with a cello can be difficult at the best of times. How did you get home – and get home with your cello?
When the contract was done, I bought a ticket for me and my cello – an extra seat. That’s how I got home. I was flying to Roma from the south of Italy, and I waited about 10 hours, then I flew to Romania. I spent the night there, and then I crossed the border. By train, I traveled to Lviv, and there I didn’t sleep at all; I couldn’t even sit on the floor because there was no place at all. So I was standing all night. At 5 PM I went to another train and traveled to my family’s city. So it took four days to get there. And I’m thankful my cello was with me; I was not alone.
Volunteering – No Time for Music Now
How do you find the inspiration to continue playing during the war?
I actually cannot play much right now. I cannot find the inspiration, to be honest. It’s probably a shame because I think when I play music right now, I can share my heart with anybody who can hear it. Because music – there is no limit to music. I think this is one of the many ways that we can share our feelings – share our situation.
So, I would love to say I can spend one hour just to play the cello. But I don’t have time for it. I work a lot, volunteering and boxing supplies and food for people who need it, our army and our military. When I come home, I just think about my bed. I want to sleep.
That’s heartbreaking. I hope the war’s over soon. It sounds like now your heart is focused on helping people.
That’s why I came back to Ukraine as soon as I could.
Being a Cellist and a Father in War Time
Is your daughter scared? Are you able to keep her from being frightened?
That first, I think, two weeks – I wasn’t with my family, because I was in Italy and then on my way home. My wife and her parents did the best they could, so Lia didn’t feel anything [was] wrong.
When I reached them, I realized how much strength it took. Because when you hear the warning siren, you have to take her [to the shelter], even when it’s 3 AM, and she was sleeping. It was eight floors without any elevator. And she cries, and my heart is broken when I hear this cry.
I think the war is not a place for kids and women. The best I could do was to take them to a safer place. It’s not safe here, but it’s safer – much safer. We will try to do everything we can so she never feels that war.
Life Will Never Be the Same – But We Will Rebuild
I can see that you are pouring everything into it. And I pray that you will soon get back to a time when you can focus on music again and bring joy into the world through your cello.
You know, it won’t be my previous life; it will be different. We will rebuild all the buildings, we will rebuild all we can, and it will be different. Even if we do the same things, even when I come back to Kyiv, I cannot walk the same streets and be the same [as] I was before the war. So I think it will be different and our music will be different. Probably we will play differently.
There is a centuries-old Japanese way of repairing broken pottery. If a bowl or something shattered, they would pick up the pieces, and it would never be the same, but they would repair it with seams of gold. And so it was broken, but it was rebuilt with gold. It’s stronger, it’s never the same, but it is beautiful – beautiful in a different way. And that’s what I hope for you, that everything gets rebuilt with gold the way this pottery does – changed, but stronger and more beautiful.
Before our meeting, I asked Vlad if he’d be willing to share some photos of his favorite places in his home city, Kyiv, before the war. Here are a few images of his favorite places.
Vlad’s Message to the World
What do you want other cellists – and the world – to know about your situation?
I know that all the countries in the world know about the war that is going on right now in Ukraine. And Ukrainian people are dying right now, even in this moment. More than three and a half million people left Ukraine. More than six and a half million people moved [internally] – they left their houses and moved to another part of Ukraine.
I would ask everyone to pay attention to this situation because what is happening right now in Ukraine is awful and terrible. And it’s – it cannot be in the 21st century. So I would ask everyone to pray for Ukraine. That’s my ask.
Is there anything concrete that people can do to help?
Enemies of Ukraine are trying to destroy not only our buildings but also our spirit and culture. I know a lot of people are helping our people; I’m really thankful for that. But there are so many who don’t know how to help Ukrainian people.
I think the best that we can do as musicians, as cellists, is to do charity concerts – performing Ukrainian music, spreading Ukrainian culture, playing the Ukrainian national anthem, and sending all the proceeds to the Ukrainian army and volunteer organizations.
I feel sorry that I cannot do the concerts right now, here. But I do feel really thankful for those musicians and cellists who understand that and will help their music family.
Vlad has sent us his own cello quintet, string quartet, and chamber orchestra arrangements of the Ukrainian national anthem that he says are free to use except for resale. Scroll down for the PDFs and mp3s. Thank you, Vlad!
You are Not Alone
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I want to thank you – thank you for this opportunity. Sometimes you feel so small – that you’re alone. Even when you do some good, you feel small. But when you talk with people, and they hear you and feel your pain – and they want to help – it feels like you’re not alone. It feels like we’re a huge family. And I thank you for that, for the opportunity to talk to people.
“The cello is my only weapon.”
When the war broke out, I wanted to do something to help. Physically I don’t think I could be of much help, so I am glad we are doing the Ukrainian National Anthem Cello Project here at the Cello Museum.
Not everyone can fight with guns. And not everyone should.
Exactly. And that’s why we fight with our cellos.
How You Can Help
The Charity Where Vlad Volunteers
Vlad told us about the charity he does volunteer work for in western Ukraine:
My friends in Ohio organized a platform where you can send them money, and they buy stuff for the military and for civilians – food and everything. They send it to Poland. From Poland, a friend of mine sends it to Ukraine. From the border, my friend and I send it to different cities. It’s my church. The church members organized it, and each dollar donated goes to the Ukrainian people.
Some of my friends are fighting right now. They tell us what they need, and we send feedback to our American friends. They’re from Ukraine, but they moved to the United States.
Here is a link to the organization we are working with. The help they are sending is not only for the church in Ukraine – we send it to everyone who is in need!
How to Help Vlad and His Family Directly
Vlad has lost his home, his job, his church, his friends, and part of his family. He has a friend in the USA who can send funds to him in Ukraine.
Vlad Primakov’s Ukrainian National Anthem Arrangements
Vlad has generously made his cello quintet, string quartet, and chamber orchestra arrangements of the Ukrainian national anthem free for anyone to use except for resale. If you perform or record these arrangements, please let us know. Thank you!
- Cello 1
- Cello 2
- Cello 3
- Cello 4
- Cello 5
- Violin I
- Violin II
- Violin I
- Violin II
Download the scores and mp3s here.
Are you a cellist working for peace? Are you a non-cellist using cello music to work for peace? Please let us know in the comments.
Please use the hashtags #cellistsforpeace and #celloforpeace and we will feature some of these on our social media channels to help broaden the reach of your message.