A Gala Concert to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko magnificantly resonated in Toronto’s Koerner Hall with the genuine aspirations and passion of the Ukrainian people. For many years, fine traditional Ukrainian school and community group concerts have been staged to mark the birth on March 9, 1814, of Ukraine’s greatest national poet and bard, Taras Shevchenko. Standing above in a league of monumental concerts, the Gala Concert presented by the Vesnivka Choir and Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Toronto Branch was enthusiastically received by the 1,000 plus capacity audience, held on March 23, 2014 at the Royal Conservatory of Music within the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto.

The long-anticipated gala performance was soldout weeks in advance. Koerner Hall with its superb acoustics as a concert venue draws a crowd on its own merit. The drawing significance of this concert was the occasion to mark Shevchenko’s 200th Anniversary and his great poetic works sung in Ukrainian to music of great Ukrainian composers. These works are expressions of one’s love for a nurturing-giving Fatherland Ukraine, its cherished culture, respected mother-taught Ukrainian language, and read literature. Introduced to add to the concert’s cach, were some 120 talented and well-rehearsed male and female voices who comprised a combined choir and players of the bandura, the Ukrainian national instrument. To crown this colossal choral concert effect, created was an overlay of professional vocal soloists, The Gryphon Trio, well-trained piano accompanists, and of course, the well-prepared exuberant conductors!

Most significant relative to the content of the given high quality performance of the Gala Concert are the underlying Euro-Maidan movement and turn of current political events in Ukraine, critically important and a counterpoint setting the tone for the future well-being of its people and the nation’s independence. This aspect of Shevchenko and belief in Ukraine was captured without doubt in the performed works, extolled without hesitation in their artistic musical interpretation. Shevchenko’s aspirations, as a common voice of the Ukrainian people, was conveyed as one voice through the choir and soloists, delivered with generous open heart by every performer to the listening audience. The culmination of this concert experience was the realization of the meaning around Shevchenko’s work and how it pertains to Ukrainians and Ukraine today – “What it’s (the going concern is) all about.” Whether from the sense of accomplishment on the part of the contributing performers, or enrichment for the appreciative concert-goer, the Shevchenko 200th Gala Concert is lauded by music professionals and amateurs, and corporate and community supporters alike as a great and historic cultural achievement in the Ukrainian Canadian community.

Over a year in planning, many months of hard work rehearsing were required to make the concert possible, starting first in the Fall of 2013 as overview rehearsals by each constituent choir under the direction of their own conductor to become familiar with the composed music set to the words of Shevchenko’s poetry selected for the concert. Once into the New Year 2014, rehearsals concentrated on voice part training, musical dynamics and in learning the words as joint choirs of only women or men. Then as the concert date drew nearer, rehearsal efforts as a combined choir intensified with emphasis placed on the finer points of musical interpretation, and attention of detail to intonation, voice part harmonies, entries and endings, diction and memorising of words.

In rehearsal with star soloist Pavlo Hunka, the internationally renowned bass-baritone offered a “voice master class” approach and advice to the concert choir members. Aside from the most obvious benefits in sound production, controlled tone and proper breathing, Pavlo Hunka pointed out his interpretation of the nature of the performed works. Among them being the tumultuous conditions and sense of urgency (in Ukraine) needed to be created in Byut’ porohy (The Rapids Rage), music composed by M. Lysenko, and the more rarely heard Zapovit (Testament), by M. Verbyts’kyi, which was to be portrayed as a rapport between a solemn reflective Shevchenko (soloist) and a joyful embracing Ukraine (two choirs).

The contributing choirs to the Shevchenko 200th Gala Concert were: Vesnivka Choir and Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir - Kvitka Zorych Kondracki, Conductor and Musical Director; Ukrainian Youth Ensembles Orion and Levada Choirs - Roman Yasinsky, Musical Director and Zhanna Zinchenko, Conductor; Canadian Bandurist Capella - Andriy Dmytrovych, Conductor and Artistic Director.

All throughout choir rehearsal time, concert dress rehearsals or in making the actual concert performance complete was the integral role played by the outstanding piano accompaniment delivered by the accomplished Olga Bileychuk and Olya Tsinkevich.

The Gala Concert programme began with an introduction read by Yuriy Dunets and Emily Bayrachny. The first works performed by the men’s and women’s choir (from memory) were the powerful Reve ta stohne, Dnipr shyrokyi (The Mighty Dnipro) by B. Liatoshyns’kyi and Dumy moi (My Thoughts) by E. Kozak, conducted by Kvitka Zorych Kondracki. These were followed by the women’s choir singing Evening by Z. Lawryshyn, Mad Wind by B. Fil’ts, and If Only I Had Shoes by E. Kozak, conducted by Zhanna Zinchenko.

The first half of the concert programme concluded with a premiere performance of Shevchenko’s poem A Dream sung by soloist Pavlo Hunka and peformed by the award-winning The Gryphon Trio – Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; and Jamie Parker, piano. The music was composed by Bohdana Frolyak, from Lviv, Ukraine who was present in the audience.

The concert programme resumed in the second half with Pavlo Hunka in a recital segment singing Shevchenko’s poems The Slave by M. Lysenko, Days Pass by S. Turkevych, The Reaper and The Fleeting Moments of Youth, both by Lysenko. Pavlo Hunka was accompanied by his trusted pianist Albert Krywolt.

The character and colour of the remaining choral works of the concert programme turned to a new, scintillating sound with the accompaniment of trained bandura players from the Canadian Bandurist Capella whose instruments added sparkle and crisp vibrant tones. The men’s choir in a finely restrained and reflective manner performed A Cloud Rises by V. Yemets’, O Bandurist, My Grey-Blue Eagle with soloist Pavlo Hunka, by S. Kozak, arranged by Y. Orlov, and conducted by Roman Yasinsky. The men then proceeded to sing a more rousing rendition of The Haidamak Song by K. Stetsenko and Come, Kobzar Play by H. Kytasty, under the direction of Andriy Dmytrovych.

In searching for the highlight of the all-round outstanding concert programme and performances, the audience would arrive at the majestic final works. The concert reached its climax with the tour-de-force performance of M. Lysenko’s Byut’ porohy (The Rapids Rage) by men’s and women’s choir, bandura players and featured soloists – Katherine Semcesen, soprano; Olenka Slywynska, mezzo-soprano; Slava Serebrianik, tenor; Serhiy Danko, baritone; and Pavlo Hunka, bass-baritone. Sung in cantata form for choir and interjected at times with bel canto form for soloists, this is a great but difficult piece. Under the direction of Kvitka Zorych Kondracki, the performance was on “rock solid” ground and proudly done with the treatment the work deserves, expressed afterwards by Pavlo Hunka, adding “You all rose handsomely to the occasion”.

The entire audience “rose to the occasion” for the culmination of the concert, the stirring yet gentle final piece Zapovit (Testament) by M. Verbyts’kyi, with soloist Pavlo Hunka and performed by two choirs. In spontaneous action, the concert ended with the audience singing one of the strongest and most passionate mass renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem Sche ne vmerla Ukraina (Ukraine Lives On) heard this side of the Maidan!

Acknowledgements are due in no small part to UCC Toronto for their support, Concert Organizing and Programme Committees, the constituent choir administrations, and many others for a most successful Shevchenko 200th Gala Concert. Corporate and community financial support was greatly appreciated, notably from the Shevchenko Foundation. Special recognition for funding goes to the Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council. Particular gratitude, however, must go to the initiator and force behind the concert’s vision, concept, content and staging – Kvitka Zorych Kondracki, and Vesnivka Choir, whose commitment and dedication made the Shevchenko 200th Gala Concert a reality.

John Pidkowich