7 years ago

Volume 21 Issue 7 - April 2016

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  • April
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what Reich had been

what Reich had been doing up to this point, both rhythmically and in his treatment of the voice. Previously, his rhythmic patterns were created by dividing up triple metres in various ways, and vocally he had relied on using vocalise – syllables or vocal sounds rather than text. “For the first time since I was a student, I decided I was going to set words, like the normal use of the human voice.” While working, he began chanting the original Hebrew words of Psalm 19 over and over until “suddenly a melody popped into my head, while at the same time this rhythm popped into my head – one, two; one, two, three; one, two; one, two, three.” Wondering what was happening, “I suddenly realized it was the unconscious dredging up of my previous knowledge from years ago of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Bartok’s Bulgarian rhythms, which was basically the use of fast changing metres. And somehow, and who knows how, the Hebrew text attached itself to those rhythms.” As he continued to work on the piece, with each of the remaining three movements built upon the texts of different psalms, he realized that this process wasn’t going away. Rather it ended up staying not only for the entire piece but became the basis for The Desert Music (composed in 1983) and continues to appear in many other instrumental works to this day. “It became a spontaneous discovery of another musical language through the setting of the Hebrew text.” This story of progressive and transformative discovery has been the hallmark of Reich’s compositional career, going back to his initial explorations, in the mid-1960s, of what would happen sonically when playing back a series of tape loops with the same recorded fragment and listening as they gradually moved out of sync or phase with each other. The ensuing musical structure manifests itself inhis pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, and forms the foundation of how his musical aesthetic itself has slowly morphed and changed throughout the years. It’s as if his own musical ideas and discoveries were having and continue to have a conversation amongst themselves, as became evident when we talked about his recent compositions. In 2013, for example, he wrote Quartet for the Colin Currie Group, a UK virtuosic percussion ensemble devoted to playing Reich’s music. By deciding to score the piece for two vibraphones and two pianos, he was using the same core instrumentation that has been the foundation for many of his previous pieces. What’s distinctive about Quartet, though, is that it changes key more frequently than in any other piece. “Harmonically, it’s all over the map, just the opposite of what you’d associate with me, especially in the early pieces. When I first finished it, I thought it was a mess, but when I heard it, I found it interesting and the performers loved it.” Two years later, in 2015, Reich composed Pulse, scored for a small group of strings and winds, piano and electric bass. “The pulse is constant, creating a very hypnotic work with static harmonic changes and just the kind of thing you’d think I would have written 20 to 30 years ago. Maybe I wrote it in reaction to the previous piece (Quartet). Sometimes that happens.” Currently, he is working on a co-commission from The Royal Ballet in London and Ensemble Signal, based in New York. Titled Runner, the piece will be premiered on November 10 at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden with choreography by Wayne McGregor. What distinguishes this piece is the incremental changes in rhythmic values, despite the fact that the tempo doesn’t change. This musical progression of different note durations reflects the idea that runners have to pace themselves. What intrigued me in listening to Reich speak about his music some 40 years later was how, even though in the early days his music offered a radically different approach to music making, he remains, now as he was then, almost bemused by how the evolutionary process of his musical explorations continually brings him back to the pillars of western musical tradition and more normal ways of composing. And as we, the audiences of Toronto, gear up for his April visit, we can look forward, now as we did then, to the way the magnetic pulse of the sound weaves its own magic within our ears, as once again we engage, step by step, with the timeless music of Steve Reich. The WholeNote’s regular new music columnist, Wendalyn Bartley, is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. Vesnivka at 50 LESLIE FERENC It’s Tuesday evening and Vesnivka is rehearsing for an upcoming concert – perhaps the most important in the Toronto choir’s history. It’s been 50 years since conductor and artistic director Halyna Kvitka Kondracki founded Vesnivka and the Ukrainian women’s choir is preparing for its golden anniversary performance. This month’s concert at Glenn Gould Studio April 17 features the works of contemporary composers commissioned by Vesnivka over the past five decades. I’m excited to sit in on a rehearsal and race across Trinity Bellwoods Park before making my way down the stairs into the basement of St. Nicholas Ukrainian School where Vesnivka has practised since day one. As I enter the hall, the memories begin flooding in. I was one of the young girls who attended Saturday school at St. Nick’s where Kondracki established Vesnivka in 1965. From humble beginnings as an after-school music program to an internationally acclaimed choir renowned for musical excellence, Vesnivka has become a leading voice of Ukrainian choral music worldwide, transcending language barriers and entertaining diverse audiences at home and abroad. I was 13 when I joined Vesnivka; I sang in the alto section for more than 30 years. During that time, the choir performed across Canada, the eastern United States, South America, Europe and Great Britain on some of the most prestigious concert stages in the world. Singing at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Royal Albert Hall in London and at a Papal mass next to the magnificent Renaissance altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome were unforgettable experiences that came with bragging rights. A whirlwind seven-city tour of Ukraine in 1991 was life-changing. From as far back as I remember, my parents had talked about their beloved homeland and I soaked up its history and culture vicariously. Stepping onto Ukrainian soil for the first time and walking in the footsteps of my ancestors was almost surreal. I discovered where I’d come from and who I was. The experience was unmatched and I was thrilled to share it with my choir sisters. We embraced our heritage and the people who opened their hearts to us. At times we were so moved by their generosity of spirit, we cried on stage. There were also tears of joy. Travelling across that vast country on a bus with 50 of my best friends was so much fun. We’d spontaneously break out in song or laugh our heads off after someone grabbed the microphone to tell jokes over the public address system, all the while sharing goodies like cake, home-baked bread and roast chicken that had been passed on by relatives after a concert. As the miles rolled on, we’d chat and get to know one another better. Each tour – across Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Holland, Poland and so many others – made our musical family stronger. For Myroslava Diakun, Vesnivka nourished her passion for singing. “I grew up in a family that loved music and special occasions at our house always included singing, usually in three-part harmony,” she tells me. “Fast forward 50 years and I’m still singing in Vesnivka with lifelong friends that I met in the choir who have become my extended family.” And the songs that brought us together in our youth keep us connected in adulthood. When “the girls” get together for birthdays, weddings of our children, christenings and even celebrations of lives lived, we sing. I join in from the pews when Vesnivka sings the liturgy at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church on Queen St. West. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I pull out my collection of Vesnivka’s recordings. This latest release, 50 Seasons of Song, is a compilation of the “best recordings” of Vesnivka in celebration of the 50th anniversary. The songs from the early years feature a pure and clean sound with orchestral arrangements by Canadian composer and two-time Gemini Award-winner Eric Robertson. There are songs that celebrate the strength and spirit of Ukrainian women as well as compositions 10 | April 1, 2016 - May 7, 2016

an Ontario government agency Halyna Kvitka Kondracki by I.B. Vesolowskyj, featuring his popular dance songs of the 40s and 50s with Vesnivka accompanied by Toronto’s Burya Band. Fittingly in this anniversary year, last month, Vesnivka launched the first phase of its e-Library of Ukrainian Choral Music. The project represents a significant milestone for Vesnivka in its mandate of promoting Ukrainian choral music, says e-Library manager and longtime Vesnivka member Lesia Komorowsky. “Vesnivka has an impressive repertoire of Ukrainian classical, folk, contemporary and sacred music in its archives which it wants to share with singers around the world – thus leaving a musical legacy for generations to come.” The e-Library gives users access to this music online, the ability to download the sheet music in either the original Ukrainian or transliterated form for performance. Music lovers can explore it at vesnivka. com and clicking on the e-Library link. While I haven’t been in the choir for many years, it feels as if I’ve never left as I walk into the room where old friends welcome me. “Does this mean you’re coming back to the choir?” they ask before I take a seat in the back row and wait for the rehearsal to begin. Aside from the padded chairs and music stands, little has changed in the hall. It’s still buzzing with energy as it always did before a concert. While there are many new faces, there are also familiar ones. Olenka Wasley, the longest-standing member of the choir, joined in 1965 and hasn’t missed a season yet. “Quite often commitments such as school, work, family responsibilities or health matters have affected the membership of many, but I pride myself on being able to manage all of these and still be an active member,” she says. Wasley recalls being impressed by Kondracki’s enthusiasm, creativity and dedication. That hasn’t changed either. “We all marvelled at her talents,” Wasley tells me, adding that Vesnivka has been a big part of her life and that of her family which has supported her every step of the way, knowing how much she loves singing in the choir. “I would encourage young women to come out and join Vesnivka and celebrate music through song,” she says. I’m hoping The Nightingale, (arrangement by Borys Lystopad based on a traditional Ukrainian folk song), will be part of the evening’s practice. Its haunting melody, sung a cappella, transports me to Llangollen, Wales and the 1993 International Eisteddfodd as the judges announce that Vesnivka’s performance of The Nightingale placed first in the folk category at the prestigious choral competition. I remember leaping out of my seat and jumping for joy. It’s how athletes must feel winning Olympic gold. While I loved the concerts, participation in music festivals and competitions opened up the world of international choral music and opportunities to meet people who love to sing as much as I do. It was also amazing to bring home the awards – whether it was from a CBC Choral Competition or the Choral Olympics in Linz, Austria. Not bad for amateurs. As the choir warms up, I slip into the adjoining music room where the walls are covered with photographs, concert posters, un organisme du gouvernement de l’Ontario April 1, 2016 - May 7, 2016 | 11

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