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PREVIEW | The 2023 Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute

By Joseph So on August 23, 2023

L-R (top): Maria Pottle, Katherine Tilbury, Jennifer Turner, Alastair Thornburn-Vitols, Andrew Wolf (bottom): Ian Bannerman, Kimberly Denis, Yanina Kosivanova, Sergey Lavrentyev, Nazarii Mykhailenko
L-R (top): Maria Pottle, Katherine Tilbury, Jennifer Turner, Alastair Thornburn-Vitols, Andrew Wolf (bottom): Ian Bannerman, Kimberly Denis, Yanina Kosivanova, Sergey Lavrentyev, Nazarii Mykhailenko

For classical art song lovers in the Toronto area, late summer is more than just spending time at the cottage, enjoying the annual CNE, or barbequing in the backyard. It’s also a time to enjoy the beauty of the classical art song, under the auspices of the Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute, a week of intensive music-making, culminating in a final concert. Now in its fourth summer, the Institute brings together talented young artists in Canada and elsewhere for a week of intensive work on Ukrainian songs.

The Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute is an outgrowth of the Ukrainian Art Song Project (UASP), founded in 2004 by British Ukrainian bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka, who, together with his wife Larysa, are passionate exponents of classical songs by Ukrainian composers. They are proud of their musical heritage and are keen to bring the wealth of Ukrainian art songs to the rest of the world. Pavlo was highly praised and much loved for his appearances at the Canadian Opera Company during the Richard Bradshaw era.

This summer, ten young artists (nine singers and one pianist) were chosen to participate in the Summer Institute, all very talented and with the potential for significant careers. They are Alastair Thorburn-Vitols (Baritone), Nazarii Mykhailenko (Baritone), Ian Bannerman (Tenor), Andrew Wolf (Tenor), Yanina Kosivanova (Soprano), Maria Pottle (Soubrette Soprano), Jennifer Turner (Soprano), Katherine Tilbury (Pianist), Kimberley Denis (Mezzo-Soprano), and Sergey Lavrentyev (Baritone).

Sadly, for the second year in a row, Pavlo and Larysa Hunka are unable to come to Toronto, but the students are in good hands. They will be mentored by the Summer Institute Co-directors of longstanding, namely tenor Benjamin Butterfield and Dr. Melanie Turgeon. Also part of the team are vocal coach Andrea Ludwig, and collaborative pianists Steven Philcox and Leanne Regehr.

Given that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still ongoing, it must not be easy for the participants to immerse in music making while we hear daily on the news the horrendous suffering of the Ukrainian people. In preparation for my coverage of this year’s Institute, I posed a few questions to Melanie and Ben, to get their thoughts on mentoring these talented young singers on Ukrainian songs in the shadow of war.


LvT: Melanie and Ben — here we are, a year later, and the Russian invasion is still going on. How does one stay focused on making music, teaching, promoting Ukrainian culture and so on amidst all the horrible brutality we hear and see on the news?

BB: I have been singing and recording Ukrainian songs with Pavlo since 2000. I also went with him to Kyiv in 2016. The material and people I have met are very close to my heart. It is exactly during times of trouble when music can have its biggest impact. Recent examples are Ukrainians singing and playing music in the subway stations during the bombings as we have seen on the news. A gentle song can calm the nerves, offering comfort and hope for better days ahead. Last year our concert prompted much outpouring of emotion from the Ukrainians who attended. The UASP Summer Institute gives poignant context to the songs and language that the students sing. It is a visceral event.

MT: As the war continues, we need to work even harder to bring awareness to Ukrainian music. When the war began, it was so uplifting and moving to see the world come together to support Ukraine. I have never been so busy as I was during those first few months after Russian invaded Ukraine. Every single day atrocities are still occurring in Ukraine, but the media coverage has dissipated tremendously. You have to search for news about Ukraine. This is why the Ukrainian Art Song Project has such a crucial role to play, to keep Ukraine on the minds and hearts of the world. We must work hard and do our part to prevent Russia from obliterating Ukrainian culture and identity.

LvT: Any Ukrainian students (from Ukraine) this year? How do you and the students stay strong and keep focused on music with all that suffering going on?

BB: There’re several, including one student, Yanina Kosivanova, who moved to Victoria from Ukraine just before COVID, and will be attending UVic this coming year to complete her undergraduate degree in voice. It is a musician’s job to remain strong and focused on music, especially when there is suffering. Singers offer up their voice for all to collectively bay at the moon in the hopes that someone will hear us! A highlight of the concert will be At the burial mound and the Hymn to Ukraine where everyone joins in.

MT: I think this is very similar to how the people of Ukraine have reacted. They have turned to music. Music is so important to the Ukrainian people. Within Ukraine and beyond Ukraine, music has the power to bring people together, to bring joy and strength during hardship. I was interviewed by the CBC on this topic:

LvT: What qualities do you look for in the singers?

BB: Singers who are inquisitive and want to not just sing beautifully but are keen to understand intimately the music, poetry and culture of Ukraine, while being aware of what it means to others when they perform these songs. Adventurers. Risk takers.

MT: Our entire faculty is involved in selecting our singers and now pianists. We are looking for singers who would benefit most from this opportunity and singers who will most likely serve as ambassadors for this music. Those who will use it in their performing careers and/or make use of it in their teaching. Additionally, I think it is crucial to have a mixture of students with Ukrainian ancestry as well as those without. This music is for everyone to embrace, enjoy and share broadly.

LvT: Since not all the singers are Ukrainian, how do you coach them in a language they don’t speak?

MT: I have coached non-Ukrainian singers for years. Having a consistent and easy-to-grasp transliteration system is key. We provide recordings of the spoken text. More recently, we have created an IPA (international phonetic alphabet) chart. This is how singers navigate numerous other languages.

BB: Having a musical ear is crucial to finding one’s way through foreign languages. Imitation is a good starting place (as long as you have a good speaker) along with the International Phonetic Alphabet being a good guide to clarify familiar and unfamiliar sounds. But the key is to find the cadence of a language through its poetry and phrasing. Word for word and poetic translations help with this immeasurably.

LvT: Ben, you feel that technique and interpretation are intertwined. My question is — if a teacher deals with technique issues in a masterclass, what happens if (or when) the student runs into technical trouble later, and you the teacher won’t be there to help the student to solve the problem? I have noticed that some masterclass teachers stay away from technique and mostly focus on interpretation and other non-technical aspects.

BB: As I said, technique and poetry are intertwined. The question always is whether poetry and imagination help develop technique (singing is a reflex) or if technique is required in order to support the presentation through song of poetry and art. I feel they are intertwined and that they exist hand in hand. The point is not to upset a singer’s foundation in one 20-minute session in a masterclass, but to open their eyes to developing their technique so that their art can flourish. Ultimately opening a singer’s imagination helps them discover more of what they are capable of technically. And round and round it goes. Students can keep or discard what works for them or not. Their own teacher is there to help them manage their growth.

LvT: Looking through the roster for this year’s Summer Institute, I noticed there’s a pianist. Can you tell us about that? And what do you hope your audience with get out of the Sunday concert?

MT: This year we commenced a collaborative pianist component. We have one participant who is taking the course and functioning as one of the collaborative pianists. She will be mentored and taught by Steven and Leanne throughout the week. Next year we plan to expand this and include two student pianists.

BB: The UASP and all those involved in the nurturing, preservation and development of Ukrainian Art Song show what music and community are really about. As children, the gentle tones of a parent or friend singing a familiar tune to us in the dark calms us and reassures us that there will be a tomorrow. The power of music and singing must not be confused with an industry, but rather be seen as a vital part of the human experience, to reassure us that there will be a tomorrow.

LvT: Thanks so much Melanie and Ben for sharing your thoughts with me, and toi toi toi for a successful week and a great concert on Sunday!

The Details

Here is the schedule of this year’s Summer Institute sessions that are open to the public. Admission is free but due to limited seating, advance confirmation of attendance through their website is required [HERE].

As a fan of the classical art song — and I speak from personal experience — there’s nothing quite like attending a series of masterclasses as an audience member to fully understand and appreciate the intricacies of learning this beautiful art form. It is a fascinating process. Below is this week’s schedule:

Wednesday, August 23 — Temerty Theatre:

  • 10:40 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Masterclass
  • 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Lecture — Dr. Kathless Manukyan: “I Pro Volju Zaspivaj: Epic As Device In Hohol’s and Lysenko’s Taras Bulba”
  • 4:10 – 5:50 p.m. Masterclass

Thursday, August 24 & Friday, August 25 — Temerty Theatre

  • 10:40 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Masterclass
  • 4:10 – 5:50 p.m. Masterclass

Sunday August 27, 3 p.m. Temerty Theatre

  • Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute 2023: Artists In Performance

Audience members get to enjoy the artistry of the ten participants, in a public concert to take place in the Temerty Theatre on Sunday, August 27. The seating configuration is theatre in the round, with not a bad seat in the house, and a real sense of intimacy and dramatic immediacy. I am planning to attend, as I know it will be a spiritually uplifting experience.

Tickets are available [HERE].


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Joseph So
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