Spotlight Artists Management & Productions 2022 Review: Ukrainian Anthology

By Chris Ruel

In March 2022, just a month after Russia’s unprovoked and illegal attack on Ukraine, Spotlight Artists Management presented a benefit concert to support Ukraine at St. John’s Church In the Village. There was much uncertainty regarding the outcome of the war. It was a time of heartbreak, but also of Ukrainian pride. As of this writing, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have the Russian Army on the run.

All this to say, the mood at St. John’s was very different on Sept. 9, 2022, when Spotlight Artists Management presented “Ukrainian Anthology,” a program showcasing the country’s rich musical heritage. The concert was a mix of vocal and instrumental pieces by Ukrainian composers and featured six American premieres.

The Rock Star Pianist

Pianist Alexander Chaplinskiy opened the concert with music by Mykola Lysenko, a mover and shaker within the Ukrainian music scene of the mid-19th century. His work spans from operas to solo piano works, and musicologists view Lysenko as the progenitor of Ukrainian classical music. The composer drew from Ukrainian folk music, used the Ukrainian language, and cut ties with Russian culture. His is the music of a distinct nation with its own identity.

Chaplinskiy played one of Lysenko’s longer piano works, “Ukrainian Suite in the Form of the Old Dances Based on Ukrainian Folk Songs.” The suite opens with arpeggiated chords in the harmony line that rippled stream-like while the melody carried hints of baroque styling with chord progressions and embellishments for which the era is known. Lysenko’s music is evocative, and his compositions are akin to painting. The artist at the easel this evening was Chaplinskiy.

With a rock-star mane that cascades to his shoulders and moves with his animated style, Chaplinskiy feels the music he plays. There’s nothing robotic about his technique or approach to the composition. An artist should suck you into their world of notes through the energy flowing from their fingers or body, a power that keeps you at the edge of your seat. Chaplinskiy is such a performer.

For his second solo piece, Chaplinskiy played “24 postludes” (war notebook), No 1-4, by Artem Lyakhovich. The presentation marked the American premiere of the work composed in May 2022. Lyakhovich is a Kievan pianist and a professor at the Kyiv Institute of Music, founded in the 19th century. Among its graduates are Vladimir Horowitz, soprano Liudmyla Viktorivna Monastyrska and bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, the latter two making a splash at the Met.

Lyakhovich’s postludes open with thunderous explosions of sound, with rising and falling arpeggios interpolated within the maelstrom of notes. The effect is evocative of rockets taking flight, followed by booms of destruction. Dark dissonance at the opening of the second postlude is meditative, peaceful, yet haunting, and the structure felt improvisational. The piece was a big shift for Chaplinskiy. Gone were the ground-shaking power chords and the roaring, floor-thumping bass line. Chaplinskiy’s fingers were feathers touching down on the keys. Here was a pianist deeply connected to the soul of the piece.

Postlude number three is full of outside notes that keep popping up, lending a smidge of atonality and gloom every few bars before returning to the original key. The effect keeps the listener musically off balance and attentive to this strangely ethereal piece. The last postlude is an amalgam comprising sections of joy sandwiched between atonal, mechanistic stabs reminiscent of heavy weaponry. The mixture of tones produces a sense of victory, but at a cost.

Chaplinskiy’s final piano solo was the American premiere of “Ukrainian Capriccio” by Volodymyr Ptushkin. The composer, pianist, and educator was the head of the department of composition at the Kharkiv National University of the Arts before passing away earlier in 2022. Ensembles throughout Europe and the United States have performed his music, which encompasses almost every genre; however, piano music was a genre close to his heart. His work for piano requires high technical skills that test a pianist’s prowess.

“Capriccio” starts with fortissimo strikes in the lower register. Riding atop the thunder is a series of ridiculously fast broken chords that ascend and descend, creating a momentum that feels unstoppable; the staves are simply rails for Ptushkin’s roller coaster ride of notes. A musical maelstrom forms before decelerating in the lower range with slow progressions of single notes. The upper keys sound “strummed” and not dissimilar to that of a Ukrainian kobza (bandura). Really, the entire piece is like a kobza tune on acid. If that was Ptushkin’s intention, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The kobza is one of the most popular instruments in Ukraine, so much so that it’s thought of as the country’s national instrument. That Ptushkin might invoke the sound of the kobza makes complete sense. The pianist, with the heavy metal look, proved himself to be a rock star. The best description is a word borrowed from the rock milieu, and it’s shredding, as in Chaplinskiy shredded the piano, owning every note of every solo.

At What Point Will a Violin Burst Into Flames?

Is there a fire extinguisher in the house? Let’s stick with the instrumental pieces because the next set of songs was mind-boggling virtuosic, begging the question, at what point does a violin played at ludicrous speed combust? The question is posed only half-jokingly. Each of the pieces presented by the duo was either a world or American premiere.

Life partners violinist Andy Didorenko and pianist Yuliya Basis thrilled with two original pieces, “Postcards from Ukraine,” and “A Series of Miniature Amusements: ‘Brain Teaser,’ ‘Echoes of the Storm,’ ‘Aflame,’ ‘Dance Macabre,’ ‘The Same River Twice,’ and ‘Non-perpetual motion.’” The couple’s third piece was “Inspiration,” by Lilia Bigeeva.

“Postcards from Ukraine” is Didorenko’s most recent work completed in early spring 2022. Didorenko researched Ukrainian folk songs and dances, and “Postcards from Ukraine” is a re-imagining of such pieces. The work opens majestically and has a cinematic tinge. Basis struck gigantic chords, grounding Didorenko’s playing but never overshadowing his line, which was ripe with legato and espressivo passages. When the music shifts, Basis’ line is broken chord after broken chord that lifts or lowers the violin melody, leading the listener to the musical focal point. Didorenko’s composition was full of surprises. Basis extended her technique to include string piano, and Didorenko’s martelé bowing matched the accented chords, creating a sense of the hustle and bustle of a city. The violinist pushed his instrument to the absolute edge (maybe a little beyond). It was musical madness. Stabs, jabs, booms from the piano, and gazelle-fast fingering by Didorenko brought “Postcards from Ukraine” to its tornado-like conclusion. Jaws needed picking up after that one.

Sticking with Didorenko’s original works, “The Series of Miniature Amusements” was a sketchbook of sorts. Some of the six sketches were fast-movers, over and done with in under a minute. Others are slightly lengthier but quickies nonetheless. Didorenko and Basis played “Amusements” without interruption, blurring the lines between individual sketches. An attempt to discern one sketch from another serves only to deprive the listener of being in the moment and experiencing the whole rather than the parts. Though John Adams’ “Fearful Symmetries” is a very different piece, sections of “Amusements” had the same mechanistic, syncopated, and unstoppable drive.

Composer Lilia Bigeeva, a longtime friend of Didorenko and Basis, who hails from Didorenko’s hometown of Dnipro wrote the duo’s final piece. Bigeeva is a music educator utterly devoted to her students, so much so that she has remained in Dnipro throughout the war and has taught even as shells rained down on the town. The composer/educator recently sent the piece to the duo, and when introducing the work, Basis relayed a message from Bigeeva, which I’ll quote loosely: Inspiration isn’t something that appears fully formed, it’s just something you have to catch. The American premiere of Bigeeva’s work sent some inspiration into the audience, no doubt. Bigeeva’s piece is big—sound-wise—and free-flowing. The work isn’t geometric with sharp angles or asymmetrical. It’s rounder, with organic lines, and has a natural rising and falling with a soft apex before it comes to rest.

Didorenko is a highly gifted composer and violinist, and Basis a formidable pianist. Together, they are a true musical power couple. So, at what point will a violin combust? Should Didorenko keep writing fast, furious, and wildly tough pieces, the answer to the question may not be long in coming.

An Aria Never Before Heard

The first singer to make an appearance was mezzo-soprano Galina Ivannikova, who presented “My soul is like an enchanted boat (Old Romance)” by Mikhailo Zherbin, with lyrics by Percy Shelley and translation by Naum Tikhy. Zherbin had a very musical uncle named Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who lived in Kyiv. Interestingly, Zherbin wasn’t trained as a composer but as a construction engineer, and in Ukrainian music, Zherbin is a composer of note.

Ivannikova has a large voice that filled the space. She sang with gusto but remained in control of her instrument, using dynamics, her ocean-deep range, and elegant hand gestures to express the beauty of the poetry.

The mezzo later returned to the stage to present “Shinkarka’s Song” from the yet-to-be-premiered new opera “Katerina” by Alexander Rodin and based on the poem “Katerina” by Taras Shevchenko. The poem was penned in 1838 by Taras Shevchenko, which itself was based on a painting of the same title by the leading artist of the time, Karl Bryullov. The poem focuses on the plight of the Russian serfs, women’s role in society, and his virulent hatred for the House of Romanov, which kept the Ukrainian people in bondage. When it came time for Bryullov to sell the “Katerina” painting, it fetched 2,500 rubles, the exact amount needed to buy Shevchenko’s freedom.

Ivannikova is slated to perform the role of the innkeeper Shinkarka when the show opens on Sept. 25 at the Odessa Theater six months after originally planned because of Russia’s invasion. Premiering a new opera while battles rage is a powerful testament to the indefatigable spirit of the Ukrainian people. Even amid the horrors of war, art perseveres.

The presentation of the aria didn’t just mark the American premiere; the performance was, in fact, a world premiere, being the first-ever excerpt sung before an audience of opera fans, making the presentation very special among the many premieres occurring that evening.

Once more, the audience was treated to Ivannikova’s seemingly bottomless range. Rather than park and bark the aria, Ivannikova used the stage, employed gestures, and with a devilish gleam in her eye, gave a captivating, light-hearted performance that held the listener’s attention, even though it was the last song on the full program.

Enjoy the Silence

One of the most interesting pieces on the program was the short song cycle “Steps” by Valentin Silvestrov and sung by soprano Elizaveta Kozlova. Silvestrov’s style has been likened to that of Philip Glass, and he is known for his contemporary classical compositions. Silvestrov is quoted as saying, “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.”

Kozlova had been introduced to Silvestrov’s compositions in 2021and was intrigued by the music itself and equally so by the concept behind Silvestrov’s work. The concept Kozlova spoke of is that of silent music.

The piece is performed at one volume—mezzo piano. Silvestrov wrote economically, returning the listener to simplicity. “Steps” is not a published work, so Kozlova used Silvestrov’s hand-written manuscript, which she got from the only other singer to perform the work. That artist received the music from Silvestrov directly. The text speaks of the soul and includes the use of silent music.

Despite the rather esoteric idea, the music itself is completely accessible. The sparse harmony in the piano line places the entire focus on the singer. Kozlova used impassioned phrasing, vibrato that was natural and not overused and took her time, particularly during the silences. Silence can have differing effects; sometimes, it’s peaceful. But it can also be uncomfortable. With the soul as its theme, “Steps” uses silence for reflection. Yet, still, the silences were unnerving. Kozlov and collaborative pianist Chaplinskiy would stop. With his foot on the sustain pedal, the preceding note slipped into quietude.

Then nothing.

At first, it felt awkward having a performer just looking at the audience, but then you hear it. In New York City, ambient noise is so ubiquitous the mind filters it out, separating the signal from the noise. What we think is silence is far from it. We hear the thoughts in our heads, our hearts beating, our lungs filling with air, paper shuffling, throats clearing, and the horns and sirens seeping in from the street. It seems there’s music within the silences, after all.

A Study in Contrasts

Soprano Zoya Gramagin sang two pieces, each receiving their American premieres. The first was “The Soldier’s Story, Movement 3: ‘To recruited,’” by Vyacheslav Samofalov with lyrics by Yulia Berezhko-Kamins’ka, and “Ukrainian Alfresco,” by Olena Protopopova, with lyrics by Lina Kostenko.

“The Soldier’s Story” is a prayer full of sorrow. It begins with marching music before segueing into soul-wrenching prayer and sorrow. At its conclusion, Gramagin brought the volume down, and her words took on a rhythm not unlike that of a stuck metronome. The vocal line quiets further before Gramagin’s voice faded like a slowing heartbeat and then stopped.

Gramagin finished her evening with the US premiere of Protopova and Kostenko’s “Ukrainian Alfresco.” Protopova painted a picture of Ukraine’s beauty, with Kostenko’s lyrics serving as the brush to re-create the country’s landscape. The lyricist wrote of dahlia in bloom, cherry trees, and kids eating mulberries. “Ukrainian Alfresco” is a pastoral that captures the beauty of Ukraine and its people.

The soprano originally thought of switching the program order, singing “Ukrainian Alfresco” before “The Soldier’s Story” because the pieces offer a stark contrast between the ugliness of war and the peaceful memories of a beautiful life. But Gramagin kept the program order as written, wanting to end with hope. When introducing the work, Gramagin noted that the song had personal significance because she remembers Ukraine from when she was a small child, recalling not the big cities but the little villages. The picture painted is one of happy memories and of victory. Gramagin sang with conviction and passion, revealing the vastness of the land with impassioned room-filling sound.


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