“Road to Independence” – Tribute to Ukraine, Koshyts and Ukrainian Song

Kvitka Kondracki conducts during the concert “Road to Independence”

“Our song – our greatest treasure…” – Oleksander Koshyts.

John Pidkowich for New Pathway – Ukrainian News, Toronto.

The Spring 2018 concert tour “Road to Independence” beholds a programme to mark the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Ukrainian statehood in 1918, and support Ukraine’s ongoing assertion and defense of its freedom, challenged sovereignty and independence. The collaborative choral concert was a creative and organizational tripartite effort presented by Vesnivka Choir, Canadian Bandurist Capella, and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir. These fine performances were heard by audiences in Montreal at College Jean Eudes on April 21, Ottawa’s Dominion-Chalmers United Church on April 22, and then in Toronto at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on April 28, 2018.

When Ukraine proclaimed itself an autonomous, free, independent state on January 22, 1918, the directorate of the Ukrainian National Republic not only supported Ukrainian culture in Ukraine, but valued international recognition of Ukraine and Ukrainian arts through cultural exchanges. In early 1919, Ukrainian ethnographer and conductor Oleksander Koshyts, and composer Kyrylo Stetsenko were commissioned to establish the Ukrainian Republican Capella, a state bandurist chorus in Ukraine’s Capital Kyiv, to promote Ukrainian culture abroad. Under the direction and conducting of Koshyts, the Capella embarked on a major European concert tour. In 1920, the Capella was reorganized into the Ukrainian National Choir, led by Koshyts, and continued to tour Europe plus North and South America until 1924 when it was disbanded.

“Road to Independence” certainly pays recognition to Ukrainian Statehood (1918) as well as to the Unification of All Ukrainian Lands declared on January 22, 1919. This concert tour, however, foremost honours the importance and significance of the historic choir concert tours directed by Oleksander Koshyts in the 1920s. With the Koshyts-led National Choir, first awareness, then appreciation of Ukrainian song and music was raised in Western Europe and the Americas, the performance of which received rave and sensational reviews. Audiences were introduced to choir repertoire by Mykola Leontovych, Mykola Lysenko, Kyrylo Stetsenko, and Koshyts. Particularly popular pieces were Leontovych’s “Shchedryk”, translated into “Carol of the Bells” by Peter Wilhousky, and the Ukrainian lullaby “Oi khodyt’ son”, which inspired George Gershwin to write “Summertime”.

The “Road to Independence” concert programme with joint choir and bandurists included several composed pieces and arranged folk songs that would have been performed by Koshyts and the Ukrainian National Choir on tour, such as: “Spring Thaw” – Leontovych, lyrics H. Chuprynka; “Lost Youth” – arr. Leontovych; “Three Evenings of Courtship” – arr. Koshyts were conducted by Pavlo Fondera. Next, “May I Go Dancing” – arr. Koshyts; “Nocturno” – Koshyts; and of course, “Shchedryk” by Leontovych were conducted by Halyna Kvitka Kondracki. In addition, to reflect more recent memory and the current path on which Ukraine affirms its independence, Vesnivka Choir, under the direction of H. K. Kondracki with superb piano accompaniment by Olya Bileychuk, performed insurgent songs “Departing Riflemen” by Roman Kupchynsky , “The Wounded Soldier” and “Waiting for Your Return”, arranged by Canadian composers Zenoby Lawryshyn and Larysa Kuzmenko. Vesnivka is Canada’s pre-eminent Ukrainian women’s choir…“A group of dedicated and passionate women who share a love of singing and are committed to the preservation and enrichment of our Ukrainian choral tradition.”

The concert’s unique Ukrainian bandurist chorus performing contingent was aptly delivered by the Canadian Bandurist Capella under the musical leadership of: Julian Kytasty, Musical Director; Vasyl Turyanyn, Conductor, Pavlo Fondera, Choirmaster; and Borys Ostapienko, Concertmaster. The ensemble’s breadth of repertoire was evident in a limited selection of folk and composed pieces the chorus and bandurists performed together as a unit, from the arousing militaristic to introspective, melancholic to optimistic: “Hetmany” (baritone soloist Pavlo Fondera) – Lysenko, lyrics T. Shevchenko; “Our Father Otaman” – arr. Leontovych; “By the Meadow”, “Lament of the Seagull” – M. Lavoryk; and “Kozak Glory Lives Eternal” – M. Balema, lyrics M. Vonyo, all conducted by V. Turyanyn. The bandura is the Ukrainian national instrument, dating back to before the 14th Century. The Capella’s mission is to uphold the Ukrainian Kobzar Tradition as a musical art form, promote Ukrainian music, and, as did the Koshyts-led Capella and Ukrainian National Choir, act as cultural ambassadors to carry it forward into a sphere of broader public knowledge and to be appreciated by a larger audience. This clearly echoes the effort and success of the Koshyts-led Capella and Ukrainian National Choir in the newly-independent days of Ukraine, 1918-21.

To venture briefly into the artistic musical merit of “Road to Independence”, the joint choir’s and bandura players’ ability to secure a strong opening for each piece was appreciated for its true ensemble character. The choice of tempo speeds set by a respective conductor helped make clean dynamic changes between music sections. The unique experience of seeing bandura playing was of particular interest to non-Ukrainian and Ukrainian listeners alike; to watch the impressive hand articulation of chords for note clarity, artistry, and to hear its musical effectiveness.

The tone of the concert was set at the beginning by a most uplifting rendition of Leontovych’s sacred work “Christ Is Risen”, appropriate for the weeks of Eastertime. As rousing and great was the beginning, grand was the concert’s finale. Vesnivka and it’s partner Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir, and the Canadian Bandurist Capella were all brought back together in full force, conducted by H. K. Kondracki with piano accompaniment, to perform “Nation” by Z. Lawryshyn, lyrics by poet Oleh Olzhych with baritone soloist Maksym Kazakov, then concluded with “God Almighty” by M. Lysenko, arr. O. Koshyts to a standing ovation for an encore of “Nation”.

On tour, “Road to Independence” was co-organized with assistance and hospitality of the Montreal Ukrainian Festival, Gregory Bedik, President, and welcomed in Montreal by Simon Kouklewsky from Ukrainian Time Radio Program. In Ottawa, the choir and bandurists concert performance – “Song of Ukraine” – was a presentation (in partnership) with Ottawa Chamberfest – Roman Borys, Artistic Director. The performers were warmly welcomed by Dominion-Chalmers United Church and on stage by Chamberfest’s General Manager Peter MacDonald, and by Jane Kolbe, Chair, Capital Ukrainian Festival.

Vesnivka Choir and Canadian Bandurist Capella extend their appreciation and gratitude to all their yearly sponsors: Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils; Shevchenko and Olzhych Foundations; Temerty and Ihnatowycz Family Foundations; Ukrainian Credit Union Ltd.; Royal Bank of Canada; Cholkan and Stepczuk; and individual supporters.

In the words of Koshyts and upon reflection…

“Our song – our greatest treasure… the mirror and image of our soul… educated our heroes, poets, martyrs for our nation’s truth in ancient times and in our [recent] memory. It rode with our Striletstvo and Kozatstvo into battle and when they died. All that was, is, and will be in Ukraine [is] chronicled in song” said Koshyts. He added that almost every activity of our community life takes on an artistic, cultural character in the form of a concert, presented to fulfill spiritual need and nourishment, in which the important role of Ukrainian song is immeasurable. (Concert programme notes, translated from Ukrainian by Natalia Obal).

There still may be more roads for Ukraine to journey on to secure its independence, and “Road to Independence” with its tribute to Ukrainian song may be by Ukraine’s side, at least for part of the way, in a nearby city or country in the not too distant future!

To hear an interview with Kvitka Kondracki by Ukrainian Time in Montreal, go to YouTube.

For more information on the performing groups:

Visit Vesnivka Choir and on Facebook.

Visit the Canadian Bandurist Capella and on Facebook.