Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival opens with evocative “Forest Song”

Sat Mar 19, 2022 at 2:41 pm
By David Wright
Percussionist Sean Statser performed Alla Zahaykevych’s Nord/Ouest Friday night at the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival. Photo: Joanna Asia Mieleszko

If it hadn’t been for a local TV reporter interviewing concertgoers in a corner of the lobby, one could easily have mistaken Friday’s event at Merkin Concert Hall for just another gathering of Upper West Siders to hear some modern chamber music.

But this wasn’t just any contemporary music festival. This was the first night of the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, and the terrible news of human suffering in that country weighed on the mind, even as one heard music celebrating the beauty and mystery of its natural world.

Unlike the Met Opera’s Ukraine benefit concert Monday, this concert was presented with no fanfare or patriotic demonstrations, only a few words of explanation (if any were needed) why certain artists from the old country were unable to appear as scheduled. (The event’s website indicated that ticket proceeds and donations will go to humanitarian aid in Ukraine.)

Aptly titled “Forest Song,” the program marshaled electronics and advanced instrumental techniques to evoke the “voices” of wind, water, trees and creatures. (Saturday’s and Sunday’s programs, titled “In the Field” and “Anthropocene,” will turn the spotlight, respectively, on Ukraine’s ancient rural culture and environmental issues in the modern world.)

Only the first piece, Ivan Nebesnyy’s Air Music 1 (composed in 2001-2004), called for actual singers onstage, and even there the four members of the vocal group Ekmeles were busy most of the time exhaling, whistling, beatboxing, or supplementing percussionist Sean Statser by rubbing sheets of paper and tapping small stones together.

As a half dozen brief variations unfolded under James Baker’s attentive conducting, four flutists—Kelley Barnet, Laura Cocks, Isabel Lepanto Gleicher, and Alice Teyssier—wove their own soundscape of hums, hisses, and hoots, and occasionally danced with percussive, shakuhachi-like attack, as if a troupe of merry humans were passing through this natural scene.

Zoltan Almashi’s resplendently titled An Echo from Hitting the Trunk of a Dry Mountain Spruce in Rycerka Górna Village, composed in 2015, commemorated the composer’s encounter with an actual, ancient hollow tree in a meditation for four players on the natural and human events the tree had witnessed.

Pianist Margarita Rovenskaya led off with a driving bass line on her prepared instrument, damped to thump like a tree trunk. Percussionist Statser answered her on tuned wood blocks. A soft adagio followed, in which violinist Sabina Torosjan and clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich built from a disembodied buzz to full-throated song as Statser coaxed distant thunder from a large gong. After the wood blocks propelled a Ukrainian hoedown for the full ensemble, Kanasevich closed the piece with a tender clarinet melody whose Slavic melancholy provided one of the evening’s rare reminders of current events in Ukraine.

Anastasia Belitska’s 2019 electronic composition Rusalochka—the title is the affectionate form of Rusalka, the female water spirit of Slavic folklore—involved no performers onstage, but was heard in a mostly-darkened hall (with the help of Victoria Cheah, who received an “electronics by” credit in the program).

To evoke the spirit of Mermaid Easter, a traditional religious holiday, the composer artfully combined archival recordings of songs of the season with electronic sounds suggesting moaning winds, the crackle of fire, a shimmer of stars, a metallic hurdy-gurdy. The highly processed voices went in and out of unison, a distant ancestral babble, until a single, realistic voice uttered a phrase or two, and the piece ended suddenly.

As the composer described it in a program note, the 2012 piece Trees by Ostap Manulyak was a kind of cinematic “pan” from the exposed roots of a mighty tree to its bird-filled top. It achieved this effect with a long climb of microtonal cluster chords for its ensemble of flutist Lindsey Eckenroth, clarinetist Kanasevich, violinist Torosjan, and cellist Stella Saliei, with pianist Rovenskaya and percussionist Statser. Amid the birdy slides and chirps, and a rustle of leaves in the piano, beefy electronic sounds and hard, dissonant string chords suggested the tree’s robust structure.

Only one item remained after intermission, Alla Zahaykevych’s Nord/Ouest of 2010, a contemplation of the sights and sounds of Ukraine’s northwestern region inspired by the composer’s folklore research field trip in 1986. Friday’s intended performing forces included two voice artists, percussion, and the composer on live electronics, but three performers were unable to leave Ukraine at this time, and the composer made a new version incorporating their parts in the electronic tracks.

That left Statser, the percussionist, alone on stage, nestled deep in his array of drum kit, suspended cymbals, gongs, blocks, cowbells, bass drum, etc., interacting for over half an hour with the electronic sounds, operated offstage by clarinetist Kanasevich (apparently pinch-hitting for the absent composer). During this unexpected percussion concerto, Statser was a picture of concentration as he executed his complex part, manipulating his instruments with fingertips, sticks, mallets, and a cello bow, often softly, occasionally loudly. The electronics suggested sounds of wind, dripping water, cicadas. Human sounds included virtuoso turns on a folk fiddle and a persistent, reedy voice singing a chant-like phrase.

In such circumstances, how long is too long?  In Friday’s version, this colorful, multifaceted piece seemed to end several times, only to come back for more. When does meaningful recapitulation become needless repetition?  In this case, one hesitates to judge. Training the spotlight so unrelentingly on one performer seemed to change the dynamic to one of endurance for player and listener alike—an unintended consequence of the last-minute revision that enabled the piece to be heard at all on Friday.

On the other hand, this week of all weeks, a touch of heroism didn’t seem out of place at the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival.

The Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival continues with programs titled “In the Field” (with works by Zoltan Almashi, Yevhen Stankovych, Myroslav Skoryk and Julian Kytast ) 8 p.m. Saturday, and “Anthropocene” (works by Alexey Shmurak, Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko) 3 p.m. Sunday at Merkin Concert Hall. Works and artists may change due to wartime travel restrictions.

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