Canadian Bandurist Capella Concert Touches Hearts and Ears

Olena Wawryshyn for New Pathway, Toronto.

On Sunday January 24, the Canadian Bandurist Capella, the all-male ensemble consisting of choristers and bandura players, presented a concert of Ukrainian koliady and schedrivky (carols & epiphany songs) that was outstanding in many respects. Two women’s choirs, Dibrova and Levada, joined the Capella as special guests, and, though the event took place two weeks after Christmas according to the Julian calendar or a full month after the Gregorian, the holiday spirit was palpable at the full-to-capacity St. Pius X Church in Toronto.
The collaboration between the ensembles, each with a distinctive sound and repertoire, and their conductors no doubt contributed to the positive energy. The result was a superb event, both musically and organizationally.

From start to finish, the program was very well thought through. There was a mix of traditional carols, interpretations by renowned Ukrainian composers and interesting new arrangements. Each number was interspersed with vinchuvannya, traditional Christmas and New Year’s messages, that reflected the subsequent songs thematically.

After an introductory address by the programme’s narrator Ihor Myslyvchuk, the Capella, under artistic director Andriy Dmytrovych, opened the program with four numbers, beginning with the joyous Dobryj Vechir (Good Evening to You), which most commonly greets home-owners when they first open their door to carolers, arranged by Hryhory Kytasty. It was followed by a Kytasty arrangement of Nova Radist Stala (A New Joy Has Arison), and then two of Dmytrovych’s, The Angels Exclaimed, based on a carol by composer Kyrylo Stetsenko, and Our Saviour is Born, with Alexandr Levkovitch playing on the glockenspiel. The bell-like sound of this instrument added a joyous magical mood to the words of the choristers singing the carol heralding the birth of Christ.

Next, Dibrova, the choir of the Ukrainian Youth Association, under artistic director Olesya Konyk, took to the stage. Garbed in luminous white gowns edged with red and black embroidery, they performed, a capella, three carols with interesting arrangements. Wondrous News by O. Koshets, started their set. It was followed by Christ is Born by V. Barvinsky and Oh Beautiful Girl by O. Yakovchuk. Their mellifluous harmonies spurred the audience to rapturous applause.

The Capella’s troupe of banduristy then performed an instrumental-only piece, Kytasty’s Christmas Motifs. The medley of tunes culminated in the beloved, by Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike, Schedryk composed by Mykola Leontovych.

Levada, under conductor Zhanna Zinchenko performed the next three programme items. Dressed in dramatic black gowns with orange embroidery, Levada differentiated themselves by presenting musical selections that were all by contemporary Ukrainian composers. The first, Koliadka, by T. Vlasenko, was mainly sung a capella punctuated by the pleasant sound of bells. Blessed Virgin arranged by A. Aleksieyev featured the choir singing with soloist Olenka Balonna. In the final number, arranged by H. Havrylets, the male voice of soloist K Sheveli son of the well-known tenor Victor Sheveli, provided a nice counterpoint to the women’s choir. All of Levada’s numbers were also very well received.

The audience was in high spirits by the time the entire Capella, choristers and banduristy, filed back onto the stage. It can be argued that the best of their many excellent numbers were saved for this set. Their rendition of Sleep Jesus Sleep electrified the church. This piece’s tender words have been set to a sophisticated musical arrangement by Dmytrovych, in which the choir accompanied talented soloist mezzo-soprano Viera Zmiyiwsky. Another classic Old Year is Passing, reworked for the Capella by Dmytrovych, was musically very interesting because of its use of polyphony in which two or more lines of independent melody take place simultaneously. It ended the set on a very powerful note.

Before the concert finale in which all three ensembles performed jointly, Walter Chewchuk, a chorister with the Capella and president of its board thanked the audience. He also expressed hearty gratitude to the members of the other choirs, their administrators and musical directors for their participation and cooperation in bringing the concert to fruition. Chewchuk noted that all three choirs were celebrating a milestone anniversary year in 2016: Dibrova its 50th, Levada its 30th and the Canadian Bandurist Capella its 15th.

The next music number surprised the audience. The melody was very familiar, that of O Come, All Ye Faithful, but the words were sung in Ukrainian. Be Healthy, arranged by Oleh Mahlay and Dmytrovych, was a good choice for the penultimate number; it is often sung by departing carolers and features the words “we shall return to this home.” Fittingly, the concert ended on what is arguably the most popular Ukrainian carol, Boh Predvichnyj or God Eternal is Born. It was sung in unison by the ensembles and the audience, who were by that time on their feet, as much to pay respect to the carol that is akin to a religious hymn as to show their appreciation to the performers.

The entire concert featuring carols, which announce and rejoice about the birth of Christ, had a prayerful aspect. It seemed as if the Saviour’s message of the importance of love, peace and goodwill had infused the very event itself.

Each of the conductors said afterwards that they indeed felt that there is a significant spiritual element present at a carol concert. “We sing to glorify God,” said Konyk. Zinchenko noted: “God unites us when we carol.” They thanked Dmytrovych for inviting their choirs to participate, and he expressed gratitude in return. All agreed that such collaborations are very beneficial for the ensembles and audiences and ultimately contribute to the community’s unity.

Audience-goers long mingled and chatted about the super concert they had just enjoyed before they filed out of the church. There was no doubt that the spirit of Christmas, though the holiday was weeks past had, that afternoon, touched their ears and hearts.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2016, the Canadian Bandurist Capella is a male bandurist chorus that combines choral singing with the orchestral accompaniment of the multi-stringed Ukrainian bandura. Its goal is to promote Ukrainian music and serve as ambassadors of the Ukrainian Kobzar musical tradition, which dates back centuries to the Kozak times in Ukraine.

Upcoming 2016 concerts include the Yurij Petlura Memorial Concert on April 23 at the Lincoln Alexander Centre—Theatre, in Hamilton, Ontario, and the 15th Anniversary Concert on October 22 in Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church – Jeanne Lamon Hall, in Toronto.