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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Folk music has become a part of me”

Yevhen Stankovych on whether it is hard to be a composer today and why he has been writing the opera Terrible Revenge for the second decade
21 May, 2013 - 09:46

We are lucky to be living in the time when our contemporary, outstanding maestro Yevhen Stankovych is creating his magnificent music pieces. Kyivites are even luckier because they can meet the composer on a stroll along Khreshchatyk and ask for an autograph. (The genius master is not arrogant at all, he liked to walk across the city center, he never takes a limo, because, first, as he says “a sound mind in a sound body,” and second, this is the only way to get to the NMAU where Stankovych is lecturing and NSKU, where he is an honorable co-chair, in spite of traffic jams.)

Recently our capital has held the Second Yevhen Stankovych International Instrumental Competition where 500 musicians have taken part. This forum proved that we still have talents on this earth. Young people are fond of academic and folk music and these days in music schools, studios, and societies they are taught by enthusiasts who in spite of all kind of difficulties continue “to sow intelligent and kind things” in young talents. The final concert at the National Philharmonic Society lasted for over three hours, and the music pieces performed by the laureates of the Stankovych Competition were very complicated. All the musicians showed great mastery. A young Kyivite, Maria-Luiza Pleshakova brilliantly performed at a soiree Haydn’s Concerto for Piano with Orchestra D Major. She won the Stankovych Prize, which is practically the Grand-Prix of the competition. Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Chernihiv schools were favorites of the competition. Most of the participants came to and performed on the famed stage of the philharmonic society for the first time and they all admitted that they would remember the communication with maestro Yevhen Stankovych – an outstanding composer, a modern classic – as long as they live and that it was a powerful stimulus to continue their efforts in the sphere of music. It will be recalled that the contestants from Holland, Belarus, China, Spain, South Korea, Russia, and Ukraine were competing in the following nominations: instrumental music (the piano, string, folk, wind, and percussion instruments).

“This is a great honor for me that so many – 500 – contestants have come to compete to Kyiv,” Yevhen Stankovych said, “I didn’t even hope that so many talented youths would come to the competition of a Ukrainian composer not only from various corners of our country, but other countries as well. The children are playing and singing in a very masterful way, for which I should thank their teachers. According to the terms of the competition, one of obligatory tasks was to perform a piece composed by a Ukrainian author. The program on all days was very intense and it turned out to be a marathon of talents where one could hear wonderful compositions. The competition has a positive meaning because in the time when academic and folk art does not belong to the priorities of our state there still are enthusiasts of music and I should bow to them for this. These days the Bible truth ‘at first there was a word’ has been discredited. Nowadays people talk much, but they do little. It is good that there are ‘isles’ where people are involved in art and I am very grateful to all concerned people who care about the future. Art and music, in particular, are part of spiritual life of the humanity. I have had the honor to communicate with outstanding people of the 20th century, like academician, philosopher, art critic Dmytro Lykhachov, who said that ‘in spite of all kinds of mischief there still is the grain that must always be present – the spirituality of a person,’ and soul is healed namely by classical music, and as long as humanity lives we have to pass this treasure on from generation to generations.”

Mr. Stankovych, recently mass media have published the information that choreographer Radu Poklitaru may probably stage your folk opera When Fern Blossoms on the stage of Ukraina Palace. What is your attitude to this project?

“I have learned the news from a TV show. Nobody has talked to me about this yet. Poklitaru is an extremely talented man, but we are not personally acquainted, and our paths have not crossed yet, but I think if he has such a desire this may be a very interesting show. Soon Veriovka Choir will celebrate its 100th anniversary and Anatolii Avdiievsky as art director of this famed ensemble will celebrate his 70th anniversary – I think if we united creative efforts with Radu Poklitaru, a really large-scale vocal-choreographic show could appear as a result. Therefore my attitude to this creative idea is quite positive. However, this folk opera is ill-lucked. I had to wait for 35 years to see its premiere, and that was only a concert performance, not a full-fledged show. In Soviet time, when the play When Fern Blossoms was being created, choreographer Anatolii Shekera and I had lots of trouble and even were called ‘nationalists.’ The offer to write a folk opera came from the famous French concert firm Alitepa for the World Exhibit in Paris. The impresario offered Avdiievsky to stage not a concert, but a scenic show dedicated to Hohol topic like Taras Bulba. At that time the American film appeared on screens and enjoyed great popularity. I did not see that film at that time and when I finally saw it several years later, I was surprised to see that cheap picture: the actors danced hopak to ‘Kalinka-Malinka.’ People abroad did not know anything about Ukraine, we are a kind of unknown planet for them. They turned to me as a composer because they heard something about me. In 1977 I won the Shevchenko Prize for my Symphony No. 3 (‘I assert myself’) for a soloist, mixed choir, and symphonic orchestra to Pavlo Tychyna’s verse. Avdiievsky became enthusiastic and inspired me with his enthusiasm, I studied folklore a lot, so it was interesting to work. Avdiievsky found a unique manner of singing which may be called universal, a mixture of folk ‘chesty’ vocal and academic singing. Yevhen Lysyk offered an amazing set design. When Fern Blossoms was planned to be staged 25 times at Grand Opera. The Kyiv premiere of the opera was scheduled for 1978 at the Palace Ukraina. However, after the general rehearsal Soviet censors banned the performance and ordered to destroy all decorations and costumes of the production.

“The Veriovka Choir performed only separate pieces from the folk opera. Later Mykola Hobdych made his own version – with a group of percussion instruments instead of the symphonic orchestra. Choreographer Alla Rubina has also turned to mermaid dances and created a stylized ballet. There has been an interesting performance ‘Deep Well’ by Nina Matviienko. And only conductor Volodymyr Sirenko together with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Avdiievsky’s choir singers managed to perform the full version of the folk opera (concert version) on April 8, 2011 within the program of the festival ‘Season Premieres.’ And this premiere turned out to be God’s gift.”

The Ballet Festival in Commemoration of Anatolii Shekera traditionally is held in May. You co-created the plays When Fern Blossoms, Olha, Prometheus. What do you remember about Shekera?

“He was a choreographer and philosopher, a highly educated person, he knew well the contiguous arts, and was a keen expert in music. He staged ballets, reading the scores. For him every gesture was eloquent. We got acquainted while When Fern Blossoms was being created, and later we worked on the ballet Olha. Incidentally, amazing artist Lysyk was the set designer of both plays. Shekera brought schemes to the rehearsals. He drew images which were later recreated by the dancers. In mid-1980s Shekera staged my ballet Prometheus, whose libretto was written by Yurii Illienko. Apart from the Kyiv version, Shekera created an original production in Macedonia. We wanted to work more together, but we did not have an opportunity, and I really regret about this, because Shekera had a great talent to speak about eternal values in the language of dance, and his productions were always parables that excited the souls of the audience. Two weeks before Shekera’s death I visited him at home. He was gravely ill, but he was thinking about the ways to renew the ballet Olha. With the help of his creative work Shekera wrote a bright page in the development of Ukrainian ballet. I place him on the same level with Marius Petipa in Tsarist Russia. Shekera’s ballets Romeo and Juliette, Spartacus, Bolero, Legend about Love, Lilia, Fires before Dawn, Stone Host, etc., have adorned the theater playbill for many decades and some of his choreographic gems are still present in the repertoire of the National Opera and these productions always enjoy full-houses.”

It seems to me, it is more interesting for you to write ballets. When can we expect the premiere of the opera Terrible Revenge?

“Composing is my profession. Various problems prevent me from finishing The Terrible Revenge. It is almost finished. I get distracted by offers from abroad. I have a problem with libretto. Twenty years ago I came up with an idea of this Hohol plot, and Turchak, Shekera, Pokrovsky, and Levental volunteered to stage it. When Stefan Turchak died, I stopped writing the opera to libretto by Illienko (as a film director he had a specific vision of Terrible Revenge, later Valerii Shevchuk rewrote the libretto). You know, a Hohol-themed opera is always complicated, because the text has three storeys of connotations. Few composers take up the oeuvre of Mykola Vasyliovych and write full-fledged operas. For example, Rodion Shchedrin created scenes from Dead Souls. Dmytro Shostakovich started with Marriage, but he failed to finish it. For me it is problematic to abridge the work so that the text of the classic did not get lame. The novelette Terrible Revenge has many folk images and motives; this is a complicated philosophic work. Incidentally, physicists consider that Hohol was the first to discover quantum physics in parallel worlds. You can read on this topic in Dante, Goethe, Bulgakov’s works. If I am healthy, I will soon finish the opera, but the question when it will be staged at the National Opera should rather be addressed to the administration of the theater. Hopefully, artists will take interest in the work. For example outstanding opera singer Pavlo Hunka (a Ukrainian born in England who performs at the leading stages of many countries of the world) even agreed to sing free of charge in Kyiv.”

Is it hard to be a professional composer these days?

“Today we have entered a new life dimension. Composition of a big work requires much time and you need to receive an order from someone who will perform it on stage. The state does need composers. Writing music for movies is slopwork in my opinion. However, cinematography has become a sense of life for Edward Artemiev, Michael Tariverdiev, and Maxim Dunaevsky, but there are few such people. A composer cannot write a work to shelve it. We depend on the orchestra, the conductor, and singers. Therefore most of my colleagues write chamber works which have more chances to be performed soon. I don’t refuse from any of my works. I started with avant-garde, very radical indeed, I have worked with it and studied it, so it was interesting for me. Later the interest faded away. Now I create in a different way. I cannot even repeat the things I created before.

“For my whole creative life I have worked not with Hutsul or Bukovynian folklore, but with Central Ukrainian folklore. For example, when I was writing the folk opera When Fern Blossoms I used as the basis the music of the territory of activity of Zaporozhian Sich, the spirit of the melodies of Kupala festivities. Carpathian, Transcarpathian, and Hutsul folklore is mostly monophonic, whereas Central Ukraine is a unique polyphony. You know, I have been so much involved in the folk music that it has become a part of me, to be more precise it is already in my genes. Even if I do not set any special tasks before myself, I often feel during the performance that the work is based on folk sources: the harmony circles and the flavor.”

When we met with your Polish colleague Krzysztof Penderecki, he said that “all music has already been written and the profession of composer is dying out.”

“He was coquetting. Mr. Penderecki has nothing to complain about, because his works are performed in different countries of the world, and he often conducts the productions to bring the nuances of the music he composed to the audience. He continues to compose because this is the sense of his life. He feels quite comfortable on the stage as a maestro and when he plays the violin or the piano and creates his works.”

Do you want to conduct the performance of your works?

“Who will allow me to do this?”

I think Sirenko would not refuse.

“I am very grateful to Volodymyr Sirenko because he always feels my music very subtly. He is a wonderful conductor and he has a good team of highly qualified musicians. I think let everyone do their own business. I write music, and musicians and singers perform it. I am lucky that such conductors as Stefan Turchak, Anatolii Avdiievsky, Yevhen Savchuk, Volodymyr Sirenko, Fedir Hlushchenko, etc. (the list can be very long) perform my works. Practically for my whole life I have been living in peace with conductors. Brilliant Stefan Vasyliovych was a friend of mine and played a great role in my life. I got to Kyiv Theater of Opera and Ballet owing to Turchak, we have worked much together, and I wrote three ballets for him, and prepared to create an opera together with him. Unfortunately, I did not have such an opportunity.”


Critics call Yevhen Fedorovych “contemporary classic,” and Stankovych admits: “I don’t feel the star swell on my forehead. The most important thing is being honest before the audience. And the greatest happiness is when my music is not forgotten, when it is performed at concerts, in theater, on the radio and TV. For you may be praised today, and tomorrow critics may harshly criticize the work in which you put your heart and soul. Even Mozart has been criticized. Time is the most important judge. I write music because I cannot do otherwise. I can well understand the words Tchaikovsky said: ‘I would like with my whole soul that my music spread and the number of people who love it and find consolation and support in it increased.’ We are all connected to our time. Stravinsky has wisely noticed that modern music is the music composed now, in this time. There is even a notion like ‘intonation of epoch,’ and you can not only imagine the time of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bach or Mozart owing to their music, but can also study that time. Art has a possibility to revive itself, again and again.”

By Tetiana POLISHCHUK, photos by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day