The Ukrainian Festival of Contemporary Music opens with the evocative program “Forest Song”

Percussionist Sean Statser performed Alla Zahaykevych North West Friday night at the Ukrainian Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo: Joanna Asia Mieleszko

If it hadn’t been for a local television reporter interviewing spectators in a corner of the hall, one could easily have mistaken Friday’s event at the Merkin Concert Hall for another gathering of Upper West Siders to listen to modern chamber music.

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

Unlike the Met Opera’s Ukrainian benefit concert on Monday, this concert was presented without fanfare or patriotic displays, only a few words of explanation (if any) why some artists from the old country were unable to perform as planned. (The event’s website said proceeds from tickets and donations will go to humanitarian aid in Ukraine.)

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

Only the first piece, that of Ivan Nebesnyy Aerial music 1 (composed in 2001-2004), called real singers on stage, and even there the four members of the vocal group Ekmeles were busy most of the time exhaling, whistling, beatboxing or complementing percussionist Sean Statser in rubbing sheets of paper and tapping small stones together.

As half a dozen brief variations unfolded under the watchful direction of James Baker, four flautists – Kelley Barnet, Laura Cocks, Isabel Lepanto Gleicher and Alice Teyssier – weaved their own soundscape of buzzes, whistles and hoots. , and sometimes danced with percussion, shakuhachi-like attack, as if a troop of happy humans were crossing this natural scene.

The resplendent title of Zoltan Almashi An echo hitting the trunk of a dry mountain spruce tree in the village of Rycerka Górna, composed in 2015, commemorated the composer’s encounter with a real, ancient hollow tree in a meditation for four musicians on the natural and human events witnessed by the tree.

Pianist Margarita Rovenskaya began with a driving bass line on her prepared instrument, dampened to thump like a tree trunk. Percussionist Statser answered him on tuned wooden blocks. A sweet adagio followed, in which violinist Sabina Torosjan and clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich went from disembodied hum to full-throated song as Statser coaxed the distant thunder of a great gong. After the wooden 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 few reminders of Ukrainian news.

Electronic composition 2019 by Anastasia Belitska Rusalochka– the title is the affectionate form of Rusalka, the female spirit of water from Slavic folklore – did not involve any performers on stage, but was heard in an almost dark room (with the help of Victoria Cheah, who received an “electronic by” credit in the program).

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

As the composer described 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. He achieved this effect with a long ascent of microtonal cluster chords for his ensemble consisting of flautist Lindsey Eckenroth, clarinetist Kanasevich, violinist Torosjan and cellist Stella Saliei, along with pianist Rovenskaya and percussionist Statser. Amid the slithering and chirping of birds, and the rustle of leaves in the piano, beefy electronic sounds and hard, dissonant string chords suggested the sturdy structure of the tree.

There was only one object left after the intermission, that of Alla Zahaykevych North West from 2010, a contemplation of the sights and sounds of the northwestern region of Ukraine inspired by the composer’s folklore research trip in 1986. Friday’s scheduled performing forces included two vocal artists, percussion and the composer on live electronics, but three performers were unable to leave Ukraine at that time, and the composer made a new version incorporating their parts into the electronic tracks.

This left Statser, the percussionist, alone on stage, nestled deep in his array of drums, dangling cymbals, gongs, blocks, bells, bass drum, etc., interacting for over half an hour with the electronic sounds, exploited offstage by clarinetist Kanasevich (seemingly hard-hitting for the absent composer). During this unexpected percussion concerto, Statser was a picture of concentration as he performed his intricate part, manipulating his instruments with fingertips, drumsticks, mallets and a cello bow, often softly, sometimes loudly. The electronics suggested wind noises, drops of water, cicadas. Human sounds included virtuoso tricks on a folk fiddle and a lingering, wiry voice singing a chant-like phrase.

Under such circumstances, how long is too long? In Friday’s version, this colorful and multi-faceted play seemed to end multiple times, only to come back for more. When does meaningful recapitulation become unnecessary repetition? In this case, we hesitate to judge. Dragging the spotlight relentlessly on a performer seemed to change the dynamic to one of endurance for both player and listener – an unintended consequence of the last-minute overhaul that allowed the piece to be heard at all on Friday.

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

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

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