Alastair Thorburn-Vitols (Baritone), Nazarii Mykhailenko (Baritone), Andrew Wolf (Tenor), Yanina Kosivanova (Soprano), Maria Pottle (Soubrette Soprano), Jennifer Turner (Soprano), Katherine Tilbury (Piano), Kimberley Denis (Mezzo-Soprano), Sergey Lavrentyev (Baritone); Steven Philcox and Leanne Regher (collaborative piano). Temerty Theatre, Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, Sunday, August 27, 2023.
Now in its fifth year, the Ukrainian Art Song Summer Institute is designed to introduce the wealth of Ukrainian art songs to singers from Canada and abroad in a week of intensive masterclasses, culminating in a final concert. Having been attending these events except for 2020 and 2021 when the concerts were cancelled due to COVID-19, I am always struck by the high calibre of the performers, young artists with fresh, attractive voices, some of them may well become stars of the future.
This year was no exception. The concert took place at its usual venue, Temerty Theatre. It’s essentially a large rehearsal studio in the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, a new building that houses the superb Koerner Hall, adjacent to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Sunday’s concert featured nine of the ten young artists, with theatre in the round seating and an ideal, intimate feel to the proceedings. The space was totally full — my guess is there were likely close to 200 in attendance. We were treated to a most enjoyable afternoon of vocalism.
The program consisted of 22 songs by Ukrainian composers, chosen from over 1,000 art songs known to be in existence. Stylistically, these songs range from the high Romanticism of Mykola Lysenko and Kyrylo Stetsenko to the more angular and edgy Modernist style of Stefania Turkewich. Incidentally, all audience members received as a lovely souvenir a 2 CD box set of Stetsenko songs, recorded in 2006 and featuring bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka and Canadians Russell Braun and Ben Butterfield.
Many of the songs in this concert were chosen to reflect and underscore the strength and resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of Russian aggression. The program grouped into four sections, namely The Fate of Ukraine, Love, Challenges of Life, and Thoughts of Eternal Life. Weighty material to be sure, delving deeply into the psyche of each listener. Reading the text of some of the songs, I found a lump in my throat, so I can imagine how emotional an experience it must be for the Ukrainians in the audience.
The 22 songs were mostly solos, with a few duets and one trio, the last sung by the full ensemble. The singers are in different stages of their vocal journey — some are more works in progress, while others are nearly ready for a professional career. What they do have in common are uncommon potential, sincerity, enthusiasm, and full commitment to the material, to communicate the joy of music-making. Yes, I can hear it in their voices, in their interpretation of the songs, and in their body language.
Highlights? I confess I tend to gravitate towards the more melodically inspired, tonal and accessible songs, many by Stetsenko and Lysenko. This is not to say I cannot appreciate the more angular and dissonant works, like “I Yearn for You” by Stefania Turkewich. It’s just that these more stylistically Modernist songs are a harder nut to crack so to speak, requiring more work on the part of the listener, perhaps more of an intellectual probing into its musical kernel of truth to gain a full appreciation.
Having been interested in art songs most of my life, I’ve noticed that songs from Slavic folk cultures like Ukraine are predominantly composed in minor key and shrouded in melancholia, with exquisite and evocative melodies that linger in the consciousness. Even the happy songs sound sad, and I am only half joking! Well, there was a singular exception this afternoon, the ironic ditty “The Chumak and the Tar Pot” by Yakiv Stepovy, here given a broad comic stroke in its delivery, with tenor Benjamin Butterfield gamely deputizing for the indisposed Ian Bannerman.
Once again, a beautiful recital, now taking place a year and a half after the Russian invasion. Last year’s concert took place only six months after the start of the war. Now 18 months later, the war continues. It really underscores the importance of music, serving to calm the spirit and soothe the soul.
At the end, the audience joined in to sing “Bozhe velykyi, yedynyi,” a patriotic song by Mykola Lysenko, same as last year. Sadly, this year there was no proclamation, in Ukrainian, of “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to our Heroes,” but I am sure everyone present felt it in their heart.
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