Kobzar Christmas: a New High Point in the Kobzar Tradition

Artistic Director and Conductor of the Canadian Bandurist Capella Andriy Dmytrovych (left) and Conductor of the Canadian Bandurist Chorus Oleh Mahlay bow to the audience at the end of the concert. Ivanka Siolkowska

Olena Wawryshyn, Toronto.

On January 22, while the media was abuzz about the United States president’s plans to erect a wall, the Canadian Bandurist Capella and the US-based Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America were building cross-border bridges. The two all-male ensembles, both consisting of a choir and bandura players, combined forces to present Kobzar Christmas. The concert was held at the majestic 1,200-seat St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Toronto.

“Performing together was a historic event that portrayed the cooperation and camaraderie between the two ensembles,” states Walter Chewchuk, chorister and President of the Canadian Bandurist Capella. Such collaborations can help build a framework for future endeavours, such as mentoring opportunities and the sharing of repertoire, he says.

The Canadian Bandurist Capella, under Artistic Director and Conductor Andriy Dmytrovych, has worked very hard to promote choral and bandura traditions,” says Chewchuk. “Being a fairly young ensemble – only 15 years— we have often looked to the Bandurist Chorus as mentors and as a premier group,” he adds.

The storied Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus was formed in Kyiv in 1918. The ensemble endured through the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Ukraine then, in 1949, set up its base in Detroit, USA. Its members now come from many parts of North America. Currently, under the artistic direction of Conductor Oleh Mahlay, the Chorus was the subject of the documentary film Music of Survival, directed by Orest Sushko, which premiered in 2014.

At the Toronto concert, the Chorus and their Canadian counterparts opened the program with five jointly performed numbers, filling the church with an awe-inspiring sound. The audience was noticeably impressed by their powerful renditions of traditional Ukrainian Christmas Carols. The rest of the first half featured the Canadian Bandurist Capella, along with guest soloists mezzo-soprano Viera Zmiyiwsky and soprano Myroslava Solovianenko, who each sang one number.

The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus took to the stage after the intermission. Then, for the final three numbers, they were once again joined by the Canadian Bandurist Capella to perform three popular carols, with the often-sung God Eternal/Boh Predvichnyj as the grand finale.

The concert program showcased the richness and breadth of the Ukrainian choral Christmas tradition. It included familiar carols such as A New Joy Has Arisen/Dnes Poyushche, as well as those that are rarely heard such as Three Honourable Kings/Try Slavniyi Tsari and Christmas Bells/Rizdviani Dzvony. Among the pieces were numerous arrangements by Dmytrovych and Mahlay.

The bandura players of both ensembles displayed a very high calibre of musicianship, most evident in the instrumental numbers. Two very distinguished concertmasters, internationally renowned for their skills, lead the ensembles’ bandura sections. Borys Ostapienko, of the Capella, is an award-winning bandurist and composer while the Chorus’ Andrij Birko is also a bandura maker. Both have played the bandura since their early years and have been long-time music instructors of this multi-stringed instrument.

The bandura, considered to be Ukraine’s national instrument, has a long history. The existence of the bandura was mentioned in annals dating to before the 14th Century. Its precursor is thought to be another stringed instrument, the kobza. Players of the kobza and later the bandura were called kobzari.

Kobzar Christmas was a new high point in the historical continuum of the Kobzar tradition. Hopefully, this concert presented by two ensembles that are made up of men of all ages who represent the different waves of Ukrainian immigration– from the early pioneers to recent days – was also the start of a new era of ongoing North American collaboration.