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Arts & Culture

Cleveland-bred conductor Theodore Kuchar shares his experience from war-torn Ukraine

Theodore Kuchar conducting in Lviv
Theodore Kuchar
Theodore Kuchar conducting in Lviv

A son of Northeast Ohio recently joined the exodus of people leaving Ukraine as Russian bombing intensifies. Theodore Kuchar is New York-born, but he grew up in Cleveland’s Ukrainian community. He started on his path to an orchestra career at the Cleveland Institute of Music, graduating in 1982. This week, he spoke with Ideastream Public Media from Helsinki, Finland, about the harrowing path he took out of a country under siege.

Ted Kuchar has played viola with the Cleveland Orchestra and other ensembles around the world, but his Ukrainian heritage ultimately led him to conducting posts in orchestras in Kiev in central Ukraine and - up until a week ago - in the western city of Lviv, about a half hour's drive from the Polish border.

“The orchestra that I now have my relationship with as principal conductor is the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine,” Kuchar said. “We were going through a normal subscription season. I was conducting maybe two of those weeks every month, and everything was being broadcast on Facebook. The orchestra had its own website and there was there was a sense of normalcy. You know, every musician had their own stand. They were wearing masks. And the next thing I know, I woke up on Monday morning and I was told that they had received the message early that morning to evacuate and get out of Lviv as soon as possible and go to Warsaw. So, although it hadn't yet happened, it was known that it was going to happen.”

But, despite the potential danger, his initial intuition was to stay.

“I mean, if you're the conductor of an orchestra, you have tours planned, you have recordings planned. I think how you wave your hands and how your hair is blow dried is less than one percent of the success of being a great conductor. A lot of it has to do with being a leader and commanding the respect and being able to coordinate and cultivate the mentality that your team, the orchestra, has towards you. And I think, if at that stage, I would have packed my bags and left, I could not have respect for a leader like that. I wasn't going anywhere. And at some point, later that week, it became clear that the bombing, the tanks, it was becoming aggressive, it was not symbolic,” he said.

“And then I received I received the message, saying that, ‘Ted, understand that if they take over the country, the first thing they do is they close the borders and you can't get out. And be sure that this is not a war against Ukraine. This is a war against America, NATO and democracy, because Putin doesn't want that on his doorstep. And as an American with a high profile, I would not want to be in your situation.’ When I heard that, I thought enough is enough,” he said.

With the help of his Ukrainian-born wife, Lyubov, Kuchar said he got one of the few available bus tickets out of town. From the bus window, he saw people building improvised road barriers, meant to block approaching Russian tanks. As the bus slowly moved along, Kuchar also saw a never-ending line of refugees walking, fleeing the country.

“There were people just walking with a suitcase in one hand, a baby wrapped in some kind of blanket or cloth,” he said. “You can't imagine how many people had cages, carrying dogs or cats with them. But you know, this was people that were leaving with the idea that they may never be returning.”

But, one person not making this journey was his wife. Lyubov told her husband that she needed to help out at home.

The Kuchars
Theodore Kuchar
Theodore Kuchar and his wife, Lyubov.

“She sent me photographs that she's been sewing camouflage, something that you do with material that the soldiers can wear,” Kuchar said. “And she said, ‘I'm also baking pies because these people are standing outside for days and they have nothing to eat, I'm going to bring the pies.’ So she was baking pies, and she's a singer in the opera. She said, ‘I can't leave now. I've got to do this.’ She said, ‘You're an American, you've got to get out of here. You've got to go.’”

Reflecting on the hordes of people he saw making their way to the Polish border, Kuchar acknowledged that he was lucky to have the resources to take care of himself. He added that he will use his time away to help raise funding for the Ukrainian military forces.

“My father always told me that Americans have no idea how lucky they are to live in this country and to have existed in this country,” Kuchar said. “Because, there's that generation like his that came to this country and had to endure a hell of a lot in order to arrive at the life that they ultimately accomplished. And it it's quite interesting that critical, catastrophic times like this certainly show and inspire the true sides of many.”