A night of musical discovery: Zuk Piano Duo concert review

By Christine Sabbaghian


Luba and Ireneus ZukThere was plenty to pique one’s interest in a multicolored program of two-piano works by the Zuk Piano Duo in Pollack Hall at McGill University in Montreal on Thursday, March 13, 2014. Such programming will not come as a surprise to those who know the sister-brother team, Luba and Ireneus Zuk. For their significant artistic achievement, the Ukrainian government awarded them a medal and the title “Merited Artist of Ukraine” in 1999. This concert, “Folk Elements in Piano Duo Works,” featured folk melodies and influences from Ukrainian, Greek, Hungarian, and Canadian music, with a special emphasis on Ukrainian music. It formed part of the Schulich School of Music Professional Concert Series: Carte-Blanche.

This particular program presented the music of only a few among the Zuks’ large repertoire of Ukrainian composers, many of whom have written pieces specifically for the Duo. According to Luba Zuk, there are over 200 professional composers in Ukraine itself, in addition to many Ukrainian-Canadian composers, but much of the music from the newer generations is underperformed. For several decades, the Zuk Duo has provided the opportunity to enjoy pieces from the more standard repertoire alongside contemporary compositions, particularly Ukrainian and Canadian.

The political crisis in Ukraine happened to coincide with this concert, which contained a large proportion of Ukrainian music but was planned months in advance. As such, the Duo dedicated the first number on their program, Pices ukrainiennes (1925) by Ukrainian composer Fedir Akimenko, in memory of the peaceful protesters who lost their lives, and in support of the continuing struggle for independence. With these poignant events in mind, they played from this suite the pieces “Pisnya” and “Lystopad” featuring quotes from traditional Ukrainian songs, dances, and rituals.

A solemn mood prevailed in the next piece, Ukrainian Dance (1979) by George Fiala, a Ukrainian-Canadian composer whose music is frequently featured in Zuk Duo concerts. The term “dance” in the title could be misleading to some as the piece contains dissonant harmonies and sharply accented rhythms influenced by the neoclassicism of Hindemith and Stravinsky. Subtly orchestrated, the melodic and rhythmic transformations unfold within a framework of contrapuntal complexity. The Duo’s execution was with their usual precision and in-depth comprehension.

Five Ornaments, based on pre-Christian Ukrainian ritual music including chants and dances, was composed in 1997 for the Zuk Duo by Ukrainian composer Halyna Ovcharenko. It is a slow and rather lengthy work with sustained harmonies and gradually transformed material. While the audience may have lost its concentration at some points, the Duo never did.

With the most melodious among the works of the evening, Dances from the Greek Isles (1971) by Yannis Constantinidis, the Duo brought the first half of the concert to a close with a flourish. Lest one think these are simply folk melodies, they are actually delightfully and ornamentally arranged in a study of contrasting moods and textures, switching between simplicity and complexity, always with exuberant folk appeal. Although fundamentally Greek, the dances have something of an international aspect, considering that Constantinidis, a Greek educated in Berlin, found the neoclassical inspiration for these pieces in the music of his much-admired Ravel, a Frenchman.

Following the intermission, the audience was transported into the vivid world of the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains with Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych’s 2002 perspective on Ancient Dances of Verkhovyna. These powerful dances, like Ovcharenko’s work, were also written for the Zuk Duo and are modeled on the rhythmic songs and dances of the region. As with Fiala’s Ukrainian Dance, they incorporate dissonant harmonies and combine contemporary musical language with the old. Both pianists are equally challenged in preserving the relentless energy to the end while displaying the orchestral colors and maintaining clarity within the polyphonic layers. All of this the Duo easily achieved.

More richly colorful music followed with five pieces from Bla Bartk’s Mikrokosmos: “Bulgarian Rhythm,” “Chord and Trill Study,” “Canon and Inversion,” “New Hungarian Folksong,” and “Perpetuum Mobile.” As Ireneus Zuk amusedly pointed out, most of these originally solo-piano pieces were already difficult, but the composer made the two-piano arrangements of 1940 even more demanding. Each was fairly short, like a prelude, and the Duo handled the shifts from one mood and technique to another, from lively swirls and trills to lyric melancholy, with unruffled grace.

Throughout the evening the Zuk Duo demonstrated that they could expertly handle any technical challenge and any pace, whether slow and sustained or lightning-fast. Playing with extraordinary endurance and deliberate control, they are never rushed. They can be compared to marathon runners, able to maintain a steady drive towards the goal. But they also surprise with the power they keep in reserve: without warning, in the middle of a long stretch, they quickly reel off ornaments and glissandi no less brilliant than at the beginning of the evening.

An outstanding demonstration of such endurance and vigor came with the grand finale, a joyful outpouring of Clermont Ppin’s “Ronde Villageoise” (1961, rev. 1986) extracted from the ballet l’Oiseau-phnix, with such supreme verve that anyone happening to walk in would be excused for thinking that the concert had just begun. The piece’s origin from a Canadian legend is not surprising, but who would expect Ppin to integrate jazz rhythms? The composer succeeded in merging these with complex rhythmic shifts and elements old and new--too often a failed attempt--into a wonderfully unified musical treat that, combined with the zest and enthusiasm of the Zuk Duo, left one wishing to hear it at least once more.

With various tastes and styles linked by the common thread of folk elements, there was something for everyone at this night of musical discovery.

Christine Sabbaghian holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition with Distinction from the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.


Luba and Ireneus Zuk