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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Third Annual Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute Concert Sings From The Heart

By Joseph So on August 21, 2019

Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute, 2019
Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute Concert (Photo: Joseph So)

Now in its third year, the Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute that takes place in Toronto brings together talented young singers for a week of intensive masterclasses on songs by Ukrainian composers. The concert this past Sunday in the Temerty Theatre at the Royal Conservatory was a culmination of the hard work by the eight singers, plus their pianists and coaches. I’ve been attending these concerts from its inception, and as before, it played to a sold-out and very receptive audience.

Ukrainian Art Song Project (UASP) is the brainchild of British Ukrainian bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka, who, together with his wife Larysa, are passionate in bringing the wealth of Ukrainian art songs to the rest of the music world. They spearheaded the UASP in 2004, right here in Toronto.  A great deal has been accomplished in the intervening fifteen years, mainly the continuing project of recording all the Ukrainian art songs. It is now up to 411 out of more than 1,000 in existence. The recorded ones are available for listening and download on the UASP website.

Another major achievement is the establishment of the Summer Institute three years ago. This past Sunday’s concert featured eight soloists, made up of Canadians (mezzos Alexandra Beley and Olenka Slywynska, sopranos Katerina Khartova and Katherine Mayba), Americans (sopranos Julie Anna Gulenko and Teryn Kuzma, tenor Andrew Skitko), and a Ukrainian (baritone Yuriy Hryhorash). As usual, the pianists were Albert Krywalt and Robert Kortgaard. The singers were coached for the week by Hunka and Canadian Melanie Turgeon.

In his introduction to the audience, Hunka revealed that the UASP is in discussion with the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago to bring the concert there, plus plans to take it to Edmonton. Also very significant is the plan to continue recording the songs in the Ukraine in the future.  UASP will continue to present two salons in Toronto each year, which have received critical and audience acclaim.

This year’s concert was particularly poignant, due to the very unexpected passing of Canadian mezzo Laura McAlpine, who was in the inaugural summer concert in 2017. I remember her well in that concert, a fine singer and a true artist, McAlpine was taken from the Canadian music world much too soon.  An insert honouring McAlpine was found in each program.

As in previous years, Hunka’s approach is very different from the typical song recital. He sees each song as a mini-opera, thus his focus is on the dramatic interpretation of these songs. Temerty Theatre, basically a large rehearsal studio, is arranged in a theatre-in-the-round configuration, allowing for a staging area.  The soloists are seated amongst the audience. Without a formal divide between the performers and the audience, this arrangement offers great intimacy and immediacy, not always the case in a formal auditorium with a stage.

The theme of this year’s concert was The Muse, the core of which consisted of sixteen songs by composer Myroslav Volynsky, set to text by Oleksandr Oles. In Hunka’s own words, these songs revolve around the idea of “a poet, having lost his inspiration, strives to relocate it…by setting off on a journey of discovery to experience as many moments of life as possible…” The Volynsky song cycle was complemented by the addition of songs by other Ukrainian composers: Marko Kropyvnytsky, Mykola Lysenko, and Yakiv Stepovji.

Hunka explained to the audience at the outset that he had given this very program in recital recently in the Ukraine — presumably without the staging. Here he coached the singers intensively on detailed stage action. I sat in on an earlier session and was very impressed by Hunka’s sense of theatre. It couldn’t have been easy for the young singers to act out the drama, without any self-consciousness, and without the benefits of sets, costumes, lighting, etc. Thanks to their commitment and enthusiasm, it translated into a memorable experience for the audience.

That said, I must admit that given the unfamiliarity of these song texts, it wasn’t easy for a non-Ukrainian speaker like me to follow everything I see and reconcile it with the text. In future concerts, if there’s a way for the audience to do some advance preparation before coming to the concert, it would be very helpful.

Musically, the songs are composed in the tonal Romantic or Late Romantic tradition, with several that are particularly melodically inspired.  The eight soloists all had fresh voices and plenty of enthusiasm to do the songs justice. If I were to nitpick, occasionally a singer would get carried away by the drama, resulting in some uncomfortable pushing of the voice. The songs were mostly solos, with two or three duets, and the final song was sung by the whole ensemble, a very effective moment.

Through it all, Albert Krywolt and Robert Kortgaard took turns at the keyboard, offering total and unwavering support to the soloists. The audience gave all the performers repeated ovations. Without a doubt, it was a concert from the heart, and an afternoon well spent.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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