· By Nicholas Stevens
Ukrainian Music: Lessons in Resilience
In the music world, all ears are on Ukraine—belatedly but deservedly. From living rooms and concert halls to rubble-strewn streets, musicians have played the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in support.
We at ArkivMusic feel inspired to share classical music for Ukraine, by Ukrainians. Historians of Ukrainian culture remind us that its artists have long strived for recognition. Elena Dubinets, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Artistic Director (and one half of a Russo-Ukrainian married couple), notes that this is as true in classical music as any field.
As part of our Support Ukrainian Music project, we sought insight from those who know and champion the repertoire. Read on for exclusive interviews with experts from the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, which just completed its critically acclaimed third season in New York.
Offering support in the medium our team knows best—recorded music—we honor those fighting to live in peace.
From Odessa to the Metropolitan Opera and Reno to the Royal Albert Hall, musicians across the globe have taken up Ukraine’s national anthem. A performance by the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York opened an episode of Saturday Night Live. Videos of Ukrainians singing the anthem, as well as folk songs, from shores and shelters have gone viral on social media. However, there is more to the nation’s music than any one song can encompass.
Dr. Leah Batstone, Artistic Director of the Ukrainian Contemporary Musical Festival (UCMF), was moved by the warm welcome she and the Chorus received at SNL. Yet lack of awareness of other Ukrainian music carries unfortunate consequences: "[if] people know anything about music from Ukraine," writes Batstone in an exclusive interview with ArkivMusic, "they are familiar with popular and folk repertoires, which are more difficult to swallow into Russian culture[.]" Even household-name classical composers born in Ukraine, such as Sergei Prokofiev, often went abroad, lived in imperial or Soviet times, or all of the above—and never asserted a Ukrainian identity. "The absence of a well-known history of Ukrainian art music also serves the story [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is telling: that Ukraine has no high culture of its own. That Ukraine lacks cosmopolitanism and is simply a nation of Russia's backward-looking 'country cousins,'" Batstone writes. She argues that this invisibility allows anti-Ukrainian political agendas to linger and spread: "many Ukrainians are very sensitive to this stereotype and even resist the embrace of folk culture seen in the diaspora, which is without a doubt meant to honor rather than belittle Ukrainian identity."
To learn more about Ukrainian classical music in today's world, we also spoke with musicologist Dr. Oksana Nesterenko, a Visiting Scholar at New York University. In the wake of the nation’s Revolution of Dignity and the invasion of Crimea, Nesterenko witnessed transformative growth in Ukraine’s classical sphere:
"For me, the most visible change [in] music scene[s] in Ukraine over the past ten years is quite simply, a burst of creativity—in terms of diversity, sheer number of works, music festivals, performances in traditional and most unusual venues, etc. This trend is only partially influenced by the development of a sense of national identity, triggered by the Revolution of Dignity. Many of the most active and prolific composers came of age (or even were born) in an independent Ukraine...Some composers indeed became more interested in Ukrainian cultural memory. For example, Maxim Kolomiiets (b. 1981), who had been composing music of mostly abstract nature, wrote an opera Night (2020), which explores a history of a 200-year-old Ukrainian folk song."
Nesterenko is also an advisory board member for the UCMF. She knows the contemporary classical scene and its composers well, and celebrates many of them on a blog and podcast she co-founded, Extended Techniques. As a music historian, however, she studies the Soviet era, in particular the return of spiritual influences after secularization. Composer Victoria Poleva (b. 1962) comes up as a compelling example. “Religious repressions in Ukraine were more severe than in other republics,” writes Nesterenko, but “Poleva…came from a younger generation that did not personally experience religious and artistic repressions of the 1930s and 1970s.”
"Once Ukraine gained independence [in 1991], there was a real boom in sacred music, which still continues in various ways…Poleva is distinct; her aesthetic is often defined by critics as “sacred minimalism.” Her residency at the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, England, at [Estonian composer] Arvo Pärt’s invitation, was a crucial experience in terms of both spiritual and musical development. Just like Pärt’s, her music is contemplative and spiritual in a broader meaning of this term."
On a recent album of Ukrainian string quintets, Poleva appears alongside compatriots Valentin Silvestrov and Boris Lyatoshynsky. Silvestrov—now safe after fleeing Kyiv—is known for his wide-ranging style and, more recently, his activism for Ukrainian dignity. His teacher Lyatoshynsky, whose third symphony exists in censored and restored versions due to Soviet demands, is attracting renewed attention from leading performers and critics.
Adolf Barjansky, a 19th-century composer, has likewise returned from a long silence recently thanks to pianist Julia Severus. Barjansky’s story shows how history, while not exactly repeating itself, often rhymes. Hailing from a family of Jewish Ukrainians in Odessa, he left to study music in Western Europe. Today, thousands from the same community are leaving the city in yet another tragic exodus. Hearing music by the likes of Barjansky, Lyatoshynsky, Silvestrov, and Poleva, we tap into a long history of resistance, persistence, and cultural vitality.
Even composers with no particular ties to Ukraine have spoken out about the current war at its start in 2014. Fresno composer Walter Saul's Kiev 2014, written and recorded with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine as that year's layers of crisis piled up, honors Ukrainians' anti-imperialist resistance. Ukrainian-American artists and institutions have helped call attention to the culture amid the crisis, but so has one American-Ukrainian: conductor Theodore Kuchar.
As Principal Conductor of the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine and Conductor Laureate for Life of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, the New York-born musician has recorded many albums devoted to the nation's composers, as well as homages like Saul's. In a recent interview with NPR, he discusses why he hesitated to evacuate, unintentionally revealing his chosen home's tenacity:
"I think how you wave your hands and how your hair is blow dried is less than one percent of the success of being a great conductor. A lot of it has to do with being a leader and commanding the respect and being able to coordinate and cultivate the mentality that your team, the orchestra, has towards you. And I think, if at that stage, I would have packed my bags and left, I could not have respect for a leader like that. I wasn't going anywhere. And at some point...it became clear that the bombing, the tanks, it was becoming aggressive, it was not symbolic."
Other conductors, such as rising star Oksana Lyniv, have spoken about their experiences of war with message of hope and strength, as in this video statement.
Individual artists and composers have helped define Ukrainian identity for centuries. In awe of Ukrainians' sense of shared responsibility and solidarity, however, we acknowledge institutions as well. We would like to close by giving the last words to Dr. Batstone, one of the more visible organizers on behalf of Ukrainian classical music in ArkivMusic's home nation, the United States, today. The rest of our interview follows.
ArkivMusic: You founded the UCMF after speaking with musicians and writers about the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which preceded the occupation of Crimea. Are you in touch with your contacts from that time? If so, what are they saying about the situation today?
Dr. Leah Batstone: Yes, I am still in touch with a number of people with whom I made initial contact. Of course, this is a terrible time and many of the individuals I met in Kyiv in 2019 have left because of the increasing danger to them and their families. I would say that their comments fall largely into two categories: the first is a demand for the rest of the world to understand what is happening and to do something to help Ukraine. We become desensitized to images of war so quickly, especially in places we do not personally know, that one plea I hear often from Ukraine, and find myself repeating to those who do not know Ukraine, is: do not get used to this war.
I was in Kyiv in the fall; it is a beautiful place, filled with chestnut trees that turn yellow in October. Hipster cafes line streets and people sit outside late into warm evenings drinking coffees and chatting. Winding streets feature amazing architectural juxtapositions: Orthodox cathedrals and medieval fortifications, to Soviet modernist apartment blocks and huge city parks. Whimsical murals appear around every corner and young people ride by on scooters. This is how Ukraine is supposed to be.
The other comments I hear a lot are about the importance of Ukrainian culture and its visibility outside Ukraine. Putin's assertions that Ukraine isn't a real country is more easily justified when its culture remains unknown. I would say that this is something I think the musical community can work especially to support. There is fantastic music in Ukraine, and there has been for centuries. The last one hundred years are especially rich. People should know this music because it is wonderful, but its knowledge outside Ukraine will also help Ukraine survive. And there are some wonderful initiatives by musical institutions such as the Lviv Philharmonic and the Ukrainian Institute to catalogue and make available scores of Ukrainian composers free of charge. We have a number of these linked through our festival website.
AM: Many classical institutions have seized on Valentin Silvestrov’s music lately—a positive development! The UCMF has programmed his music as well as that of other established Ukrainian composers, such as Victoria Poleva. Do you see lines of influence between figures who came up in the Soviet era and the younger artists you program?
LB: Absolutely. Genealogy is an important theme in my work and in how many Ukrainian music specialists speak about their tradition. Many composers can trace their musical heritages back through several generations of earlier composers within Ukraine. This is facilitated in part by the frequency with which composers remain in Ukraine and teach at Ukrainian institutions. My current book project is organized around the four "waves" of composition in the twentieth century, a paradigm I have heard from various Ukrainian musicologists through which composers today can directly connect themselves to composers from the early twentieth century.
AM: What do you wish the English-speaking public knew about Ukraine’s musical institutions?
LB: Ukraine has one of the most exciting contemporary "scenes" I have had the pleasure of getting to know. It is filled with connections to ancient roots, balanced by visionaries right on the cutting edge of art. Ukraine is prolific. Every big city has a new music festival. There is consistently support for and interest in large-scale new works. Creative young people have the means and wherewithal to realize new ideas. This creativity extends far beyond music into the realms of technology, graphic design, architecture, fashion, food, and even approaches to cultural diplomacy.
It is a place from which we have a lot to learn. It has been called a "laboratory of transnationalism" and models ways in which multicultural societies can co-exist. It has deep connections to nature as well as firsthand experience of manmade disaster, giving Ukraine a special point of view on current concerns around climate and the future of the planet. Its existence at the hands of various empires and both the cultural and psychological effects of this experience make it an important contributor to contemporary discourses around hegemony, privilege, and colonialism. Given the tragedies that have taken place on Ukrainian soil, the culture's persistence and insistence on creating beauty is a model of resilience the world needs, especially following two years of a global pandemic.
Ukraine is so much more than the terrible images we are seeing now in the media. When this war is over, go experience Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival has compiled a list of arts and humanitarian organizations that can transform your contributions into material support for the people of Ukraine. Find the full list here.