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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

“Hmyria is the Epitome of the National Idea”

The Borys Hmyria International Singing Competition debuts in Kyiv
14 December, 2004 - 00:00

This vocal competition was dedicated to the centennial of the illustrious Ukrainian singer Borys Hmyria (1903-69), which was celebrated in Ukraine last year.

Borys Hmyria is one of those singular individuals whose names are synonymous with talent and unmatched mastery in the art of singing. Among their number are Kathleen Ferrier, Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Fedor Chaliapin, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, and others. The range and richness of his voice, officially categorized as basso cantante, and unofficially as basso absoluto, seemed boundless. Hmyria easily handled baritone and tenor roles. His repertoire was immense: in addition to 40 operatic parts and countless operatic concert numbers, it contained hundreds of chamber pieces. His vocal style combined the indispensable components of true art: creative temperament, sense of proportion, taste, mastery, attention to such details as lyrics, enunciation, and piano accompaniment. Owing to Borys Hmyria’s musical intellect, his interpretations have been the standard for a number of generations of singers and admirers of the great artiste. This fact is all the more remarkable, considering that the gifted singer only embarked on a musical education after the age of thirty. After working for many years in the best Soviet opera houses and winning countless awards and titles, the celebrated vocalist began touring extensively. His refusal to accept ephemeral benefits born of routine is worthy of respect. Hmyria preferred being recognized by the people, not officialdom. As Bukhin once said, “Hmyria is the epitome of the national idea, which is sorely needed in independent Ukraine.”

The creativity of a musician and performer is a delicate matter. Once he leaves the stage, its luxury fades, so it is only recently, thanks to audio recordings, that we learned to prolong the life of this most marvelous, vital, and humane art. Thanks to Borys Hmyria’s wife Vira Avhustivna, his creative heritage has been preserved. It comprises some 600 recordings of chamber pieces (290 Ukrainian folk songs and romances, 179 Russian and over 100 Western songs and romances, 75 operatic arias, 85 movements from vocal-dramatic works and symphonies), and 30 recordings of concerts and 4 vocal cycles. Hmyria also left behind 150 manuscripts of popular scientific articles and features, 8 notebook-sized diaries totaling 1,856 pages (1939-69), and 7,000 letters.


Taking part in the Hmyria Competition were singers representing all vocal categories, aged 25-36 (men) and 20-35 (women). These age brackets showcase a balanced degree of talent, creative energy, youthful enthusiasm, and professionalism, thus allowing the contestants to show off their best skills. In addition, it mobilizes both the high professional level of the contestants, talented and experienced musicians, and the exacting jury made up exclusively of noted singers. For this competition the head of the jury was our celebrated fellow countryman, the bass Anatoly Kocherha, who, after making his name in Ukraine, has been performing with the Vienna Opera for more than a decade. Sincere and emotional, he is an excellent actor with a charismatic personality. Describing his work on the jury, he declared, “I envy myself for taking part in this competition. I made decisions with my heart. The jury did a great job and worked in a friendly, family-like atmosphere. Our decisions were unanimous.” Among the jury members were Valery Buimister and Lev Venedyktov (Ukraine), Yelena Zaremba (Russia-Luxembourg), Galina Pisarenko (Russia), Michael Stricharz (Germany), and Wolfgang Hartl (Austria). These experienced and celebrated musicians were more like teachers lavishing parental care on their students than strict and impersonal adjudicators. At the closing press conference they outlined some of the problems facing the Ukrainian vocal school (the head of the jury noted imperfect pronunciation, especially in songs sung in a foreign language, and that some performers lacked a sense of style) and offered suggestions to help Ukrainian singers, who have some of the world’s best voices, reach even greater summits of professionalism.

Wolfgang Hartl jokingly convinced everyone that the contest was truly unbiased when he said, “The contestants’ biographies that were printed up in the brochure were in Ukrainian, and so I couldn’t learn about the participants’ past creative achievements — they were all equal to me.”


Since this was the first time this competition was being held, the difficulty lay in organizing the scale of the debut on a fitting level. The competition was well organized and the rules upheld the best traditions of the world’s most prestigious competitions: three rounds, three prizes, and a Grand Prix. However, in this commercial age the prestige of this event was mostly determined primarily by the prize pool and secondly, by the composition and authority of the jury, competition requirements, and number of rounds. But even from this standpoint the arrangements were more than adequate. The Grand Prix was valued at $10,000.

In fact, the very notion of a music competition is paradoxical, as there are no universal criteria for choosing the best performers in the creative domain. Any performance characteristic may be interpreted differently. Professionalism, talent, stage presence, artistry, philosophy, technique, and finally the form of the interpretation — all these general notions have a particular objective meaning for every member of the jury, let alone the audience. The latter, however, has no ties of friendship with the participants (in other words, the listeners are not biased) and during the competition they concurred with the jury’s decisions, which is rare for an open competition of such a scale.


One great advantage of the Hmyria Competition, at least for the audience, was the program in which chamber works predominated. Without subjecting the participants to rigid rules, the requirements encompassed a great variety of vocal music: compositions dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, Ukrainian, Russian, and other songs and romances, and a vocal cycle. The program was refined, even somewhat on the elitist side, considering that a chamber-vocal repertoire is a vast treasure trove of outstanding masterpieces created by the most talented composers in the world. An ordinary competition always has all kinds of frills in store. In this particular case, the tone was set by good taste; mastery born of indefatigable practice was rated higher than what is known as inherently “good material” (i.e., the voice per se, which, figuratively speaking, is a block of wood to be carved into a work of folk art). Moreover, the contestants were not penalized for mistakes onstage, and this distinguished the event from other competitions, where an excellent musician who sings a single wrong note often loses to a mediocre performer who goes meticulously by the book. A chamber repertoire is less effective, but in many respects it is more important for a vocalist than, say, an operatic one. The difference between these two types of repertoire is as distinct as that between a solo performance and one accompanied by an orchestra, with more opportunities to demonstrate vocal strength and range. Chamber music demands flawless taste, style, and cultivated performance. Regrettably, the latter is often absent in singers who are gifted with a strong voice and who vent their decibels on the audience, literally knocking people off their seats for the duration of their performance. Chamber pieces instantly expose a singer’s lack of technique, and most importantly of an ability to penetrate the very essence of music.


Diplomas were conferred on the Ukrainians Viktoriya Osadchuk, Natalia Pelykh, and Yuri Minenko; Tatyana Trenogina (Russia) and the Ukrainians Dmytro Aheyev and Mykola Shuliak placed third; the Ukrainians Tetiana Hanina and Yuri Bark placed second; Anastasia Bakastova (Russia) and Serhiy Kovnir (Kyiv) placed first. The jury and audience were unanimous about the superiority of Maksym Paster of Kharkiv, who won the Grand Prix. The best accompanists of the competition were awarded diplomas and prizes.

The finale concert was the best evidence of the unbiased stance of the jury and audience. As the end of the concert approached, the audience became increasingly more ecstatic. Whereas the opening numbers featured interesting discoveries, skilled performances, and brilliant musical talents, subsequent pieces seemed almost to transcend the bounds of rationality, penetrating the audience’s innermost emotional recesses. The audience’s eyes filled with tears as one bewitching singer followed another, until Maksym Paster appeared onstage and captured every heart with Shostakovich’s Satires [Pictures of the Past] to Sasha Chorny’s lyrics. It was enchanting to listen to him. This was magic rooted in exceptional dramatic mastery, artistry, and professional skill. There is no question that the competition reached its main objective of discovering young, talented, and creative individuals.

The Hmyria Singing Competition will be held every three years at the National Philharmonic Society of Ukraine and the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music, under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and Art of Ukraine, the Kyiv City State Administration, the State Enterprise Ukrayina Mystetska, and the Borys Hmyria Foundation.