Folio News Story
February 26, 1999

A musical appetizer "à la Ukraine"

Eastern European art music featured at Schevchenko Lecture

by Vivian Zenari

Maestros Grzegorz Nowak and Virko Baley,
with U of A's Debra Cairns, centre

When asked to characterize Ukrainian classical music, Virko Baley used the term "magic realism." Magic realism, said the University of Nevada music professor, is "a cultural reaction to a politically weak culture." If politically incapable of doing anything, one uses myths to act out the possibilities of power, he added.

Baley's intriguing comments were among many that arose Feb. 16, as part of this year's Shevchenko Lecture. Baley, a composer and former conductor of the Nevada Symphony, shared the Timms Centre stage with Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) conductor, Grzegorz Nowak, to discuss the state of Eastern European classical music before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The event was aptly called "Zakuska: Concert Chat with Two Maestros," zakuska being Ukrainian for "appetizer." That's because the lecture was a prelude to the ESO's "Journey Through Ukraine" concert series which followed that week.

Throughout the 19th century, Ukrainian classical music suffered a "lacuna," or hiatus, said Baley, mainly because Ukraine was partitioned among its neighbors, Poland and Russia among them. Once Ukraine became part of the USSR in the 20th century, government cultural policy led to the founding of new orchestras and to competitions for composers. As Nowak pointed out, however, there was a political catch: "They had orchestras but they were controlled by Moscow."

This control, Baley said, caused composers to become "iconoclastic," to "work outside the mainstream and work in a very idiosyncratic way."

Composers relied on their individual artistry, not official cultural infrastructures. This move to the personal characterized much of 20th century classical music. As a result, during the Cold War "many more adventurous and new things were happening on that side of the Iron Curtain than out West," said Nowak.

Since the break-up of the USSR, Ukrainian music has remained personal, and although it has not dispensed with nationalism it has gravitated toward the universal. Today it is difficult to determine national styles, Nowak said. "Now music is individualistic, using all means available" to express a composer's intent. The conductors agreed contemporary music in Ukraine is typified by the work of Yurij Laniuk, who was in attendance at the lecture.

The ESO program provided an ideal foreground for the Shevchenko Lecture, said Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) director, Dr. Zenon Kohut. A research centre at the U of A, CIUS co-sponsors the annual lecture series with the Ukrainian Professional and Business Club of Edmonton. CIUS is "in every respect" community based, Kohut said, and the joint sponsorship is indicative of the institute's service to both the scholarly community and Edmonton's large Ukrainian population.

In fact, Nowak said the concerts were "bait" to lure the many Edmontonians of Ukrainian descent into the Winspear Centre in the hopes of converting them into repeat attendees. All the pieces were by Ukrainian composers, including Laniuk's Palimpsesty, which had its world premiere at the Feb. 19 concert. Soprano Joanne Kolomyjec and the Ukrainian Music Society of Alberta massed choir added their voices to the regular symphony contingent.

Dr. Debra Cairns, associate professor of music at the U of A, acted as moderator for the informal session. The conductor of the I Coristi chamber choir and specialist in Renaissance choral music said being the moderator provided a "wonderful opportunity to get to know a country and music about which I knew very little."

She lauded the ability of the Polish-born Nowak and Ukrainian-born Baley to draw comparisons between Eastern and Western European music. Indeed, Baley described the ESO program's opening piece, the overture to Mykola Lysenko's opera Taras Bulba, as the "William Tell Overture" of Ukrainian repertoire.

Cairns said the talk demonstrated "music has evolved beyond politics." Nowak takes this sentiment one step further: "[You can] identify art with certain groups but in essence it belongs to all humanity."

Some "Ukrainian food" for thought.

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