The Ukrainian bass-baritone talks about his passion for bringing the Ukrainian Art Song to the world
For classical voice fans, the genre of “the art song” immediately brings to mind the wealth of German Lieder or French Mélodies, or the Italian Arie Antiche. Knowledgeable song lovers may well be familiar with Russian songs by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, Polish songs by Chopin, Hungarian songs by Liszt, Czech songs by Dvořák, or Scandinavian songs by Grieg or Sibelius. Then there’s the whole English song tradition from Purcell to Britten and beyond. Art songs from the Ukraine? It’s likely to draw a blank from even a sophisticated voice connoisseur.
Bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka wants to change all that. Born in the UK to a Ukrainian father and a British mother, Hunka has been passionate about bringing Ukrainian art songs to the world. The bulk of these songs have been forgotten and unperformed, gathering dust on library shelves. Hunka feels these songs are part of the wealth of Ukrainian cultural heritage and deserves to be heard. In 2004, he established the Ukrainian Art Song Project (UASP), with a mandate to discover, preserve and promote these gems to the classical music community worldwide.
Hunka has had a long association with the classical music community in Canada, particularly Toronto. He has sung with distinction with the Canadian Opera Company for several seasons in the 2000’s. Since the founding of UASP, he has returned to Toronto on many occasions, to make recordings of the long-forgotten songs, a project that has involved many Canadian artists in the recording studio and on stage. His last visit was in the summer of 2015 when he spearheaded extensive recording sessions at the Glenn Gould Studio. I interviewed Hunka at the time for an article that appeared in Musical Toronto.
He’s returning to Toronto this week to give a recital of art songs by Ukrainian composers at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Mazzoleni Hall, a program of songs based on texts by William Shakespeare and Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. He is also here to promote his new project, the Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute, to take place August 7 -13 in Toronto. I took this occasion to ask Pavlo his thoughts on his initiative of training a whole new generation of singers on Ukrainian art songs:
JS: Welcome back to Toronto, Pavlo! We last talked in the summer of 2015, when I wrote the article on you and the Ukrainian Art Song Project that came out in Musical Toronto. How is the recording project going?
PH: We have now recorded 352 songs. Because of the dormant/ever awakening war in Ukraine, our activity has been somewhat curtailed, when we mention recording. However, the world library on our site – www.ukrainianartsong.ca is progressing quite fruitfully. We will have posted 2000 Ukrainian art songs on our site by the end of 2018.
JS: Have you recorded any more songs since then?
PH: No. But, we are investigating the possibility of recording in the Ukraine, where there are many young, incredibly talented singers. I’ll keep you posted.
JS: Any more recordings and/or recitals planned this summer? In Toronto and elsewhere?
PH: We have presented the Lysenko Dichterliebe at the Pre-concert Roy Thompson Hall in February with Krisztina Szabo and Russell Braun, accompanied by Albert Krywolt. 600+ people attended – it was a resounding success. Then, Columbia University invited the UASP to perform and present a paper about Ukrainian art song in New York, just last Saturday – another milestone.
JS: Tell us about your upcoming Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute. What made you decide to start this initiative, of a summer institute?
PH: The Summer Institute has always been part of our 3rd branch of the UASP. The ladies on our board have thrust forward and made this happen. We are educating all over the world, but this is the first Summer Institute. We are inviting and sponsoring a student from Ukraine to come and participate in the Toronto venture, with the hope that we’ll invite three next year; then in coming years, we’ll set up a sister institute in Ukraine. Tons of young vocal forces are uniting. As you can see, the world is embracing our inspired idea.
JS: Have you done a lot of teaching in the past?
PH: 2016 saw Larysa and I in Ukraine, working with more than 70 students, full of verve, full of hope. We will continue our endeavour to produce opera singers in droves. No reason why 40 great singers should not emerge from Ukraine in the next 10 years! They just need a bit of updated guidance. Let’s see.
JS: What do you look for in a student? Voice? Technique? Musicality? Solid training?
PH: All have the above qualities. I can give them the ‘Je ne sais quoi’ – the heart and soul to the song/aria, so often neglected in performance.
JS: I noticed that there’s no mention of age limit. Are you looking for students of any age?
PH: Age is notional. We are looking for young spirits, ready to change every day, develop imagination every day – in short, change their mind every day…and thus, they grow…and thus does the world.
JS: Students with a performing career in mind?
PH: Our mission is to inform the whole world, not just those who have chosen their path. Everyone can sing, everyone has an imagination…and thus the world seeks peace.
JS: Students already fluent (or with some knowledge) of the Ukrainian language?
PH: We welcome all. From all corners of the world. Ukrainian art song is but another art form in the world. We merely wish to be performed, to contribute to the world’s treasures.
JS: Can you comment on the goal(s) of the summer institute? What do you hope to achieve with this project?
PH: We hope for continuity into the future. We hope to show the public attending and the students of art song how to reach into the very soul of every song…every song is an opera, a drama about life…an exquisite expression of love.
JS: My very best wishes to you for this project, and your upcoming recital. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday at the recital. Toi toi toi, Pavlo!
You can catch Pavlo Hunka and Alber Krywolt performing at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Mazzoleni Hall. Sunday, March 12, 3 p.m. Full details here.