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.

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