Theodore Kuchar had been planning his U.S. tour with the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine for more than a year when Russia’s full-on invasion of the country started in February 2022. “There was no work those first days— people were in a panic, and nobody knew who was going to be hit next,” he recalls. “We were in our apartment listening to the alarms go off. It was like a 1940s movie.”
Born in New York to a Ukrainian immigrant family and raised in Ohio, Kuchar trained as a violist at the Cleveland Institute of Music and segued to conducting in the late 1980s. As the principal conductor of the Lviv National Philharmonic, he spends much of his time in that city with his Ukrainian wife, opera singer Lyubov Dika. Initially when the war broke out, he had no plans to leave. But his spouse was insistent: As an American, he needed to flee.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not going anywhere.’ So she got angry, slammed the door, and just took off. I thought, ‘That’s a typical day in the Kuchar house,’” he jokes. But Dika wasn’t kidding. A little later, she called from the ticket counter at the bus station, asking how soon he could be ready to go. He says the 16-hour journey from Lviv to Warsaw—which included a tense, five-hour wait at the Polish border—was the most exhausting experience of his life.
Nine months into the conflict, Kuchar has settled into a new abnormal, returning to his home and wife in Lviv in between international gigs, despite the danger and uncertainty. Even amid war, life—and art—go on, including the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine’s U.S. tour, which kicks off a 40-concert run in January. One of the stops is Carnegie Hall on February 15, the ensemble’s inaugural appearance.
While Ukrainian musicians have long appeared at the Hall, there has been an even higher level of unwavering support for the embattled nation and its artists since the outset of the war. In May 2022, the Hall’s star-studded Concert for Ukraine benefit raised $550,000 in direct relief. Three months later, the Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America traveled to Berlin to perform an alfresco concert in collaboration with talented teenage Ukrainian refugees.
If the war can be said to have any upside, it’s the sudden global interest in the Ukrainian people and their culture. Kuchar admits that the Hall was not originally on the 120-year-old orchestra’s agenda when he began prepping the U.S. tour two years ago. “But when the war became a hot topic of world attention, out of the blue, Carnegie Hall asked if we had an evening free,” he says.
For the ensemble’s Hall debut, Kuchar has planned a program that showcases familiar pieces, such as Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” and Brahms’s First Piano Concerto featuring Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko, alongside a composition by celebrated Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych, who is lesser-known stateside. “The last thing you need is a Ukrainian orchestra coming to North America and playing music you’ve heard from every other orchestra,” Kuchar says. “You have to create a unique menu; you can’t just serve chips and steak.”
Kuchar’s optimism notwithstanding, he acknowledges that the war has taken quite a toll on him and his musicians, both personally and professionally. “I had students from the conservatory and colleagues from the orchestra who were saying, ‘Give me a stick! Give me a gun!’” he recalls, adding that one of his bassoon players lost his arms and legs while fighting. “And, of course, plenty of people have been killed. Everybody in Ukraine has a story to tell about losing family or friends or neighbors."
Kuchar may not be a Ukrainian citizen, but he’s been involved with the country’s classical music scene for 30 years, and his family actually emigrated from Lviv. He is palpably passionate about Ukraine, talking enthusiastically about its history and heritage. He’s proud to be one of its artistic ambassadors at this pivotal time and is thrilled to be playing Carnegie Hall
“It’s legendary,” he says. “While you have to have an equal amount of respect for the audience no matter where the venue is, 10 years from now, I probably won’t be talking about concerts in South Carolina or Alabama or Florida. I will be speaking about Carnegie Hall.”