SCRUTINY | Ukrainian Art Song Concert Pleases The Ear And Touches The Heart

By Joseph So on August 30, 2022

Images of the Ukrainian Art Song event by Joseph So
Images of the Ukrainian Art Song event by Mykola Swarnyk

Adam Ewing, ten., Aiden Gent, ten., Yanina Kosivanova, sop., Katherine Mayba, sop., Taryn Plater, mezzo., Narantsetseg Ren, mezzo., Adam Schmidt, ten., Kasia Swintak, sop.; Steven Philcox, piano; Leanne Regehr, piano. Temerty Theatre, Royal Conservatory of Music. August 28, 2022.

The Ukrainian Art Song Project, now in its 18th year, has introduced the beauty of Ukrainian art songs to many singers and to the song-loving public. The project was founded in 2004 by bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka, who has sung to great acclaim at the Canadian Opera Company. Born in the UK to a Ukrainian father and a British mother, Hunka is passionate about bringing Ukrainian art songs, the bulk of which remain unheard and largely forgotten, to the consciousness of classical music lovers everywhere. Hunka sees these songs as a vital part of the Ukrainian cultural heritage and rightly deserves to be heard.

An offshoot of the UASP is the Summer Institute that started a few years ago, where a group of aspiring young singers gather in Toronto for a week of intensive immersion, mentored by a distinguished faculty. The week culminates in a public concert. This year’s concert was the fourth, and the first one that Hunka was not able to be here. I was told that he was busy recording the Ukrainian art songs in Ukraine, despite the danger posed by the Russian invasion. Given the war and the suffering of the Ukrainian people, this year’s Institute took on a special meaning. It underscores the importance of music and culture, especially in times of conflict and sorrow, as the arts nourishes the soul.

Eight singers participated in this year’s Institute, under the tutelage of co-directors Benjamin Butterfield and Melanie Turgeon, as well as vocal coach Andrea Ludwig. The collaborative pianists this year were Steven Philcox and Leanne Regehr. On this Sunday afternoon, an enthusiastic, appreciative, and above all a totally supportive audience gathered at the Temerty Theatre in the Royal Conservatory of Music, to witness a performance of superlative music making that they won’t soon forget.

Before the concert, I had a quick chat with Dr. Turgeon, for her thoughts on this year’s UASP. “It’s difficult to watch the war from afar,” says Melanie. “There’s a conscious effort to obliterate Ukrainian identity and culture. As a scholar and performer of Ukrainian descent, I have always made a conscious effort to ensure Ukrainian classical music obtains its rightful place on the world stage. I’ve never been so motivated before in my career to promote Ukrainian music and utilize art as a weapon against war. It’s so rewarding to see both Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians embrace and appreciate this music, and for our artists to work so hard, where they’re capable of communicating the text with such proficiency and sincerity.”

The seating in the Temerty Theatre was arranged in a theatre in the round fashion, so there were no bad seats. The singers were placed in different parts of the hall, some actually seated among the audience. It’s a space large enough for a proper performance, but small enough to give everyone a feeling of intimacy, ideal in a song recital. The eight singers this year all have beautiful and fresh voices. Three men — two tenors and a high baritone. The women were two mezzos and three sopranos. To be sure, some are more advanced in their training than others, but they all have appealing voices and above all, a total commitment to the music at hand.

I am told that of the eight participants, some had little or no previous exposure to the Ukrainian language, and that applied to the three men. It’s remarkable that they were able to sing in Ukrainian so fluently — this was mentioned to me by a couple of Ukrainian friends I spoke with after the concert.

The afternoon’s program consisted of 21 songs. For those of us who have attended UASP recitals in the past, we would be familiar with the well-known composers like Mykola Lysenko, Kyrylo Stetsenko and Stefania Turkewich. In addition, the program also featured several, less familiar composers. It was the first time I heard songs by Klebanov and Liudkevych.

The musical style of all the songs chosen ranges from the high Romanticism of Lysenko and Stetsenko to the more angular and edgy Modernist style of Turkewich. The 21 songs were mostly solos, with a couple of duets, and the last song was sung by the full ensemble. The singers delivered their pieces with assured technique, beauty of tone and communicative power. Personally, I confess I have a soft spot for the more melodically inspired pieces like Oriental Melody and When Two Must Part, both by Lysenko, and I Met You in My Dreams by Barvinsky. But, I can honestly say that every singer and every song made an impression on me.

It was a remarkable achievement that after only one week, the singers were able to give such a polished and assured performance, in a language that most of them do not speak. As I was sitting in the audience, I kept thinking of something Pavlo Hunka said the last time he was here, “They come as singers, and they leave as artists.” After the concert, the audience joined the performers in a Ukrainian song, Bozhe velykyi, yedynyi, a prayer by Mykola Lysenko. We all were given the sheet music with the text phonetically written in English, so everyone could join in.

This was immediately followed by declamations from the Ukrainians in the audience. I had no idea what it was, but I was intrigued. A Ukrainian friend, Ihor Tomkiw, told me afterwards that it was “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to our heroes.” There were most likely tears in the eyes and lumps in the throats among the audience members, a bittersweet moment. Let’s all hope for peace and a rapid end to the conflict, especially for an end to the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

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Joseph So
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