Dalia Stasevska: "Russia is trying to destroy the Ukrainian identity"

Dalia Stasevska (Matthew Johnson)
Dalia Stasevska (Matthew Johnson)

All is serene when I slip into the Conductor’s Room at Maida Vale Studios to meet the Finnish maestro Dalia Stasevska, who has been recording an International Women’s Day concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The 39 year old, who is the band’s principal guest conductor and chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland, and has played both the First and Last Nights of the Proms in recent years, is tucked into the corner of a sofa, feeding her unfeasibly cute four-month-old daughter Aurora. The odd satisfied gurgle is the only peep from the latter for the hour we spend together.

This idyllic scene belies the turmoil that Stasevska is suffering. On the day we meet, it’s approaching the two-year anniversary since the most recent invasion of her father’s homeland of Ukraine – she speaks the language with her siblings.

Her younger brother Lukas, a cellist and filmmaker, has been in the war-torn country since three months before the assault began in 2022, and is documenting the experiences of Ukraine’s fighters; while several times, she and her older brother, Justas, have driven through the night in trucks laden with supplies to deliver to the border.

On one occasion Stasevska stayed to conduct the International Symphony Orchestra (ISO) Lviv in concert – a rare chance for the Ukrainian musicians to play and get paid. She and her brothers have since raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the country.

“I am not a hero here,” she stresses. “Heroes are those people who are fighting on the frontlines. You can't compare. But this is something that I can do. It's my dream now to conduct Ukrainian music, Ukrainian musicians, orchestras.”

Dalia Stasevska recording with the BBC SO (handout)
Dalia Stasevska recording with the BBC SO (handout)

And she’s sticking to her word. A conversation with the American violinist Joshua Bell resulted, earlier this year, in him and Stasevska recording a concert, again with the ISO Lviv, featuring the world premiere recording of a violin concerto by the barely-known Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann. The piece was inspired, poignantly, by De Hartmann’s anguish at the Nazi occupation of his homeland and the fate of its Jewish people. The ISO musicians had to queue for nine hours to cross the border into Poland to make the record.

“This is a project, for me, from the bottom of my heart,” Stasevska says. “It could be written now. Thomas de Hartmann walks in Ukraine and sees a country that is destroyed. And what they are [now] doing to his homeland, and to our culture, is completely the same.”

The recording will be released in the summer. “I think that this is one of the 10 greatest 20th century violin concertos. I tell you, it will blow people's minds how incredible this music is,” she says.

We’re actually meeting to discuss her more imminent release, Dalia’s Mixtape, a selection of 10 works by 10 different composers, that she says “are pushing the symphony orchestra in different, individual ways”.

She describes the symphony orchestra as her ‘instrument’; “I think this is one of the greatest instruments ever created. And it has evolved through hundreds of years to its current form, but at the same time, there’s still so much space for exploration.”

Seven of the composers featured are women, and eight are living (the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who wrote the scores for the films Sicario and The Theory of Everything, and Julius Eastman, the black American composer whose work is experiencing something of a renaissance, are the two exceptions) and from “so different backgrounds. There's a producer, there is a movie composer, there is a person who has a background in rock music, electronic music. It's a really interesting bunch of people,” Stasevska says.

Dalia Stasevska (handout)
Dalia Stasevska (handout)

Like many musicians of her generation, she sees the separation of classical and pop music as increasingly pointless. “I don't want only to talk anymore about classical music, I want to talk about great music regardless of the genre.” Unlike most classical music records, it will be released as individual tracks, and each has its own little podcast to dig into the background of the music, and its own artwork.

“I feel that, in a way, it's a golden age for music,” she says. Stasevska conducts all over the world – Aurora has already travelled to America twice – and receives universal acclaim for her charismatic, energetic style, which can seemingly handle almost any kind of music (she’s also recorded an album with her husband, the Finnish rocker Lauri Porra; a sort of secular mass which is narrated by Stephen Fry. Of course).

“I [conduct] a lot of core repertoire, and we have fantastic history in classical music [that] we are really proud of but I think it's really important as an artist also to push boundaries; to have this creativity and openness and be sensitive to surroundings and changes, and also push our industry in new ways,” she says.

Inevitably though, at this painful moment, our conversation returns time and again to Ukraine. Playing with the ISO earlier in the conflict was, she says “a life changing experience. Nobody travelled to Ukraine from abroad, I felt that it was such an important moment for me to show that I'm not afraid, and I'm standing with them, and we do music together.”

Lukas has been playing his cello for combatants. “You sometimes wonder, why are we playing music in the middle of the war? But it is really that moment when the things that you experience are so horrible, that nobody should see, it's like when the words stop, the music begins. It's such a private moment, but also such a communal moment and you don't need any more words. We both felt that the music is not anymore entertainment; we became servants.”

The country’s “whole cultural life is shattered,” she says. For the gig, she chose only Ukrainian music, by living Ukrainian composers.

The album cover of Dalia’s Mixtape (handout)
The album cover of Dalia’s Mixtape (handout)

“And it was really interesting for all of us because the orchestra management said that it's not really a typical programme in Ukraine. But I knew it was so important – Russia is trying to destroy Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian culture, this is the whole core of this war. It’s been happening for 300 years.”

She talks passionately about all the composers and musicians whose work was suppressed throughout Ukraine’s history, died with them in gulags or was scattered across the world. “I think this horrible, tragic, full scale war, somehow, it pushed Ukraine – it had to suddenly discover its own identity. When we are playing our Ukrainian music, we leave a mark of ourselves, culture makes us who we are.”

She has been vocal in the past about international organisations employing Russian artists who don’t speak out against the war, castigating the Vienna State Opera on Twitter in 2022 for employing the soprano Anna Netrebko. Two years on, when I ask her whether she stands by that sentiment, she’s less bullish, more pained.

“I find it, to be honest, almost unfair that I have to answer this question as half Ukrainian,” she says, head bowed. I mean, I only ask because you've said it before.

“I understand if you are not Ukrainian it doesn't touch [you in the same way], but I am Ukrainian. And these are Russian people, who don't speak up.”

She says she can’t conduct Russian music at the moment. “It's just too close for me. For me, it's very black and white, it feels like putting a victim and perpetrator in the same room. I know that these composers, of course, especially the dead ones, have nothing to do with this. But it's a bigger thing, you know, and it's again, about culture.

“The only thing that I want to talk about now is Ukrainian culture, and do everything [to make sure] that it will survive, because this is about survival.”

I wonder whether, with media attention presently so focused the war in Gaza, Stasevska worries about conflict fatigue. “I'm extremely concerned that, especially for European leaders, they understand how serious the consequences will be for all of us, if Russia wins. This gives a sign for dictators that they can do whatever they want to their neighbouring countries by force.” She calls it “an existential war”.

Ukraine’s “cultural life is shattered” but there is resistance. Kharkiv National Opera and Ballet Theatre has turned its vast underground area into a concert hall where performances can continue even during air raids (REUTERS)
Ukraine’s “cultural life is shattered” but there is resistance. Kharkiv National Opera and Ballet Theatre has turned its vast underground area into a concert hall where performances can continue even during air raids (REUTERS)

“If Ukraine will fall, that's not an end of it.”

By now Aurora is out for the count, drunk on milk. As I help Stasevska manoeuvre her sleeping infant into her pram, she confides that she enjoyed something I wrote about a magazine that published a guide to classical music with zero women in it (spoiler: I was not pleased). She decries the fact that there is still no woman at the helm of one of the top international orchestras (your Berlin Philharmonics, your Boston Symphonies, your LSOs, for example).

“Marin Alsop should have been there for years!” she exclaims. American conductor Alsop leads the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra – not the Vienna Phil, which is the city’s biggie. “But they don’t see women in that way; they don’t see us as worth investing in. This is what pisses me off.”

Anyone who underestimates Stasevska’s worth is making a big mistake. My prediction? If the powers behind one of those big bands have even a modicum of sense, she’ll be running one of them by the time she’s 50.

Dalia’s Mixtape will be released by Platoon as individual tracks on all streaming platforms, between March 8 and September 13. Her concert with the BBC SO will be broadcast on International Women’s Day, March 8, on BBC Radio 3