Art Music in Kiev

Upon arriving in Kiev, Maria and I discovered to our great joy that one can see an opera here for as little as $1.25 or as much as $25. Without losing any time, we booked superb tickets to see several Ukrainian works, which are very hard to find in Canada.

The highlight of our three-day cultural weekend was the ballet Night before Christmas (Ніч перед різдвом, 1990) by Yevhen Stankovych (or Stankovich), which took place at the Kiev Opera House. The music explored a lot of folk material and was a little Stravinskyesque at times. The whole first scene was a very clever layering of what is known as the “Carol of the bells”. It even makes an appearance in the tom-toms. The sets and costumes were gorgeous, and so was the hall itself. It’s obvious that this is the place you are meant to bring your foreign business partners – everything is beautifully restored and the programs have English translation. The following night we saw a Ukrainian classic, the opera Natalka Poltavka (1889) by Mykola Lysenko. The music was nothing special and was sadly overshadowed by the glamourous costumes and sets.

I was particularly looking forward to Monday night, though it ended up being a rather frustrating event in terms of local bureaucracy. But more on that some other time. The event was a state-funded celebration of Stankovych’s 70th birthday, with a concert presentation of his folk opera When the fern blooms (Коли цвіте папороть, 1979) at the Ukrainian National Philharmonic. I read about this work some months ago and had little hope of every finding it. And lo and behold! It turns out that it was being performed in Kiev, now, for free! I call it fate.

The event was full of speeches by various government and cultural officials and the gifting of countless grotesquely large bouquets. I hope the composer had a bucket or two in front of him. There was even a letter from President Yanukovych, the reading of which was greeted by dissatisfied murmurs and quiet booing. The music in this so-called folk “opera” was extremely loud and full-bodied, with a whole lot of choir. It sounded more like an oratorio. I will have to do some thorough listening to the CD, which I quite literally found in the hall, before I decide what I really think of it.

For those of you itching to check out some contemporary Ukrainian piano music, find something by Alexander Shchetynsky (or Shchetinsky). Maria and I got to see a full concert of his solo piano works performed at the Archive Museum on the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral in central Kiev. Most of the pieces were serial, each with a very unique soundworld. My favorite were the Four Preludes (1977-78). They had lots of character. Glorify the name of the Lord (Хваліте імя Господнє,1987) was radically different from the other works. It was largely made up of long, simple, chant-like melodies, which very slowly built up into a dense polyphonic texture over the course of 25 minutes. The flowing lines were frequently interrupted by a repeating bell-like chord. The work was very meditative.

Tomorrow we are off to our first village with a large bag of candy, a bunch of chocolate bars and several bottles of sweet wine (the old ladies have a sweet tooth). Check back for updates, and in the meantime check out Maria’s photo tour featuring the Kiev suburbs.

Flatten your throat and sing

“Flatten your throat and send a nasty sound into your teeth.”

That’s roughly what we were trying to do in the student folk ensemble led by the well-known Ukrainian ethnomusicologist Yevhen Yefremov.

This week I was very lucky to sit in on a lecture on the modal organization of Ukrainian folksong given by professor Yefremov at the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music. Professor Yefremov doesn’t just collect and analyze folksongs. He can also sing them complete with all the ornamentation, altered tunings, and the authentic village timbre. His lecture was full of musical examples, which he performed himself, from memory and without any lesson plans. Later in the day I got to participate in his student ensemble where we tried to decipher and imitate several folksongs from Ukrainian villages found on Russian territory. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a folk singer out of me yet.

Last night, Maria and I got our first real taste of live folksong performance, which took place not in a village, but on the 22nd floor of a very futuristic-looking Soviet apartment block in the Troeshchina suburb.* Iryna Danylejko, the lovely ethnomusicologist who is helping us with our expeditions, invited us over to her “penthouse”** apartment to celebrate her daughter’s fourth birthday. The apartment is filled with curious objects that Iryna and her husband Danylo brought back from various expeditions: hanging baskets, ornate icons, a giant wooden trunk and a small stone mill, to name a few.

Once we got through a couple of bottles of wine and a small decanter of rosehip-infused horilka (Ukrainian vodka), the four singers treated us to three folksongs. I spent most of today walking around my uncle’s empty apartment, tears streaming from my eyes from intense sadness and concentration, trying to sing one of the mournful songs through my partially squeezed throat. I should have really been writing the somewhat belated piano quartet for Ensemble Sonore instead. But folksong is my raison d’être in Ukraine, right? Sonore can wait, I hope.

Iryna sings in a folk ensemble Mykhajlove Chudo (Mихайлове Чудо). You can see and hear them here and here, and with the rock band N.Sh.N (Н.Ш.Н.) here.

* Yes, suburbs in Ukraine are made up of 22-story apartment buildings with not one single-family unit in sight.

** As Iryna’s husband, Danylo, called their humble, but cosy abode from which you can see most of Kiev.

Ukraine: first days

Achievements to date: learning how to use a cell phone with Russian menus and making a whole THREE phone calls to strangers (1 in Russian, 2 in Ukrainian).

My sister and I left Canada last Friday. Two days and several long layovers later, we have finally arrived in Kiev. I was disappointed to discover that the Chopin Airport in Warsaw did NOT have pianos OR Chopin impersonators playing mazurkas at every gate, as I hoped, but there was quite a bit of Chopin-related merchandize in the duty-free shops.

I was born in Ukraine, but I’ve been living in Canada long enough that my visits to the Motherland are always a bit of a culture shock. There is an insane contrast between the restored, shiny and super expensive centre with its luxury cars and fashionable, stilettoed women, and the slummy suburbs made up of endless blocks of Soviet-era concrete apartments*. The transit system also gets increasingly questionable the further you travel from the central areas. The neighbourhood I’m saying in boasts rickety 50-year-old trams featuring razor-sharp ticket validators (two of my fingers were bloody before I felt any pain) and old ladies in babushkas squeezing themselves through the dense crowd to collect transit payment.

To my great joy, I’ve discovered that one can see an opera for $1.20 at the National Opera House. That’s cheaper than a bag of chips in Canada. The most expensive ticket is about $25. The season also features several works by Ukrainian composers, which I read about but could not find back in Canada. I’m pretty thrilled. Next weekend should be a triple hit consisting of one ballet and two operas.

While searching for the opera house, we stumbled upon two street performers who could have made a perfect postcard of Ukrainian stereotypes. They were twin sisters – blonde, modelesque and dressed to the nines – playing banduras and singing Ukrainian folksongs in harmony. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but there was a creepy older man filming them quite closely on his iPhone so maybe you can find that video on the internet (here’s one with no sound, who needs sound with women like that?).

See my sister’s take on the situation here.

* Granted, there are lots of stilettoed women in the slummy suburbs too, hopping over puddles and weaving stealthy through streets dug up for plumbing repairs some years ago.