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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

Yevhen STANKOVYCH: Great complexity and great simplicity will always come along

The composer can be included in the Red Book of the contemporary classical music
22 November, 2011 - 00:00

I interviewed the composer after the official premiere at the National Philharmonic Society of his new work, Opera Rustici, performed by the maestro’s old friend, the founder of the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra, conductor Anton Sharoiev (Opera Rustici is dedicated to him). The composer was not present in the Lysenko Column Hall on The Day of the premiere, because another significant composition by him – Kaddish requiem Babyn Yar (to the 70th anniversary of the tragic event) – was performed in Israel at the time.

The two recent seasons at the Dnipropetrovsk Theater of Opera and Ballet featured two historic premieres, Legend about Princess Olha and Cradle of Life. Both plays (based on the ballet Olha and folk opera When Fern Flourishes by Stankovych) were staged by Oleh Nikolaiev, a talented choreographer who succeeded in bringing into classical Ukrainian scores his own vision of the modern theater. Currently Stankovych continues to work on his new work for theater, Hohol’s Terrible Revenge, which is going to be staged at the National Opera of Ukraine. Requiem, ballet, and opera are monumental genres, and one should work on them for years or even tens of years, and they require full concentration on the idea and at least minimum guaranties that the work will be performed. In our “speeded up” world they should be included in the Red Book of modern classical music, and along with them – the few Ukrainian composers who have a nerve for such deeds.

Stankovych has been working for several years on the opera Seeking Revenge based on Hohol’s novelette Terrible Revenge, which was ordered by the National Opera of Ukraine. The composer asserts that Hohol is one of his favorite and dearest authors. Stankovych has turned to Hohol oeuvre twice: he composed the ballets May Night and A Night on the Eve of Christmas. He took up the work on the music version of Seeking Revenge with awe and special responsibility: he has been intrigued by this Hohol’s plot for many years, besides, Stankovych’s teacher at the Kyiv Conservatoire, an outstanding composer Borys Liatoshynsky, dreamed to write an opera based on this novelette, but never had time to do so.


Mr. Stankovych, you composed Kaddish-requiem Babyn Yar 20 years ago, but it was performed for the first time in The Days of the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. How often has the work been performed after that? What is the peculiarity of its performance in Jerusalem?

“It was the second time I went to Israel. The first time was in 2008, when another requiem I composed was performed in Jerusalem, The Mass for the Victims of the Famine. In 1991 Babyn Yar was for the first time mentioned in Ukraine on official level. The initiative came from Leonid Kravchuk, who brought this date to a state level, before than there had been only people’s memory and rumors. I received an order to compose Kaddish-requiem back in the Soviet time. The lyrics were supposed to be written by Dmytro Pavlychko, whom I had not known before. But I had the experience of working with Jewish music owing to the work on the film Pariah – Hanukkah – for a symphonic orchestra. I knew this material, as I had studied it for a long while. Apparently, that is why the Ukrainian leadership ordered me to write it. To write Kaddish-requiem, I went to the Podol synagogue. The rabbi wrote the order and text of the numbers, I gave everything to Pavlychko, who was supposed to do the rhyming. In my opinion, he did it successfully. Pavlychko is a unique poet for a composer. It is not without a reason that many songs use his lyrics. Volodymyr Kozhukhar conducted the first performance of Babyn Yar in Ukraine. Most of the later performances also took place in autumn. The work was performed in full length about four or five times, more often it has been performed in fragments, three-to-four parts. I consider the fact that this year Kaddish was performed in Yad Vashem, a very important museum of history for Israel, which preserves the memory about the victims of the Holocaust, a great sign in my life. For Ukraine it is also a grand event on the whole. It is not an artistic event, rather a social one, important for understanding of those events that have taken place in our long-suffering history. I am happy that the performance involved the outstanding musician, world-level conductor Volodymyr Sirenko, one of the best choirs in the world, Dumka, headed by Yevhen Savchuk. They received a very high praise in Jerusalem. The audience consisted of various people, including many former USSR residents. I asked to refrain from applause. Verdi’s Requiem is one thing (it is a concert work), and this is a mass for the thousands of people who were tortured by fascists. You can expect only one kind of reaction: everyone living in this world should know that nobody has the right to take other person’s life. Otherwise all the norms of human population will be broken.”


Currently one can see in Dnipropetrovsk two ballets with your music. Was it you who found the city? Or did the city find you?

“About 35 years ago I wrote the song ‘Dnipropetrovsk is Smiling with its Lights’ for a film chronicle. Very important things in my life are connected with this city. When I was a very young composer, the conductor of the Dnipropetrovsk Philharmonic Society Gurgen Karpovych Karapetian asked me to compose a big work. That is how the Second Symphony was created. It was my first serious order from a conductor. Since that time I have many times visited rehearsals and concerts in Dnipropetrovsk (Gurgen Karpovych performed my other works, too).

“However, the recent proposal from the Dnipropetrovsk Theater of Opera and Ballet came unexpected for me. I had never met with conductor Yurii Porokhovnyk before then, as well as the young director of the theater Oleksandr Sharovarov, neither was I acquainted with choreographer Oleksandr Nikolaiev. Of all the staff of the theater I knew only director Yurii Chaika, whom I met in Kyiv. I should remind that after the death of the main conductor of the Kyiv Opera House Stefan Turchak the ballet Princess Olha has been staged for 10 years – and that’s all. I did not believe my ears when Nikolaiev called me with a proposal to stage Princess Olha in Dnipropetrovsk. I even doubted that the theater had all the instruments mentioned in the score, because unfortunately the regional theaters do not receive proper funding, they are operating on the verge of survival. Their halls can be used for other, ‘more important’ purposes, like industrial fairs. Nikolaiev said he wanted to change something and he had his own vision of the work. I said, ‘You may do whatever you want.’ I came to Dnipropetrovsk The Day before the premiere and was impressed by what I saw. Oleh created his own version of Princess Olha, he somewhat changed the literary base of the work. Clearly, the renowned choreographer Anatolii Shekera could not stage the ballet in his time in the way Nikolaiev did. The new version emphasizes the emotional-religious side, the fact that Olha was one of the first people in Rus’ to convert to Christianity. This cause was accomplished by her grandsons. The music in Princess Olha is rather difficult for the orchestra performers. They say after Princess Olha they do not fear to take up any score.”

The ballet Cradle of Life based on your folk opera When Fern Flourishes, in a sense, became the first stage interpretation of the long-suffering work, which was once forbidden. But the directors have considerably diverged from the original idea. What is your attitude to this?

“The main thing is that practically anyone who takes interest in contemporary Ukrainian music knows the old version of the folk opera. And Nikolaiev made a U-turn of When Fern Flourishes and created an absolutely new version of the work, called The Cradle of Life. That is why some ‘discords’ may emerge in perceiving of the production. For example, he does not show Zaporozhian Sich whatsoever. Most importantly, he made in Dnipropetrovsk what nobody in Kyiv, as it turns out, is able to do – he made a play based on When Fern Flourishes, and did it in a really interesting manner. Of course, it is somewhat straightforward. But these problems are gradually being solved, and the play is still being changed and corrected.”

Do you mean that the work on The Cradle of Life is still underway?

“Any master – for I consider Oleh Nikolaiev an outstanding master – does not abandon the work halfway. Clearly, he does not enjoy such support as Vadym Pysariev in Donetsk. Nikolaiev used to be a premier in Dnipropetrovsk, he has worked in Moscow for a long while. He received invitations to productions all over the world, but he wants to stage ballets only in Dnipropetrovsk because he loves the city. The Dnipropetrovsk ballet dancers are no less qualified then those in Kyiv. The artistes from the Dnipropetrovsk ballet currently dance practically all over the world. They are needed in America, and in England. This is an indication of the high level of the school. On the other hand, Yurii Porokhovnyk is a graduate of the Lviv School of Conductors. Like Volodymyr Sirenko or Fedir Hlushchenko, he is knowledgeable in all music genres. But nothing would have come out unless the support of the theater’s director Oleksandr Sharovarov, because to stage a contemporary complicated work is a kind of risk. One thing is La traviata or Carmina Burana, and Ukrainian ballet is quite another thing. Incidentally, Nikolaiev staged Carmina Burana in an extremely apt and unexpected way, and I was impressed by this production. It produces ambivalent impressions; that is why it is so interesting.”


You were not present at the Kyiv premiere of Opera Rustici, but did you go to see the Russian premiere, conducted as well by Anton Sharoiev?

“I was not present at the Tyumen premiere either. I know that in Russia the work was performed by an incomplete orchestra lineup, with only one instrument from each group present. I have never doubted anything Sharoiev does. Thirty-five years ago we came to know each other without seeing: he performed my Sinfonia Larga, later other my works. Overall, I have been lucky to meet outstanding musicians, I have met many.”

Over 30 years ago you composed the folk opera When Fern Flourishes. And now, after all twists and turns of life you have created a nostalgic, practically romantic, and very transparent in its structure, Village Opera. Was this turn a kind of reaction to your own “opera drama,” an attempt to heal the wounds?

“Opera Rustici is not an opera. It has nothing in common with When Fern Flourishes. ‘A Village Opera’ is an incorrect translation of Opera Rustici, because in Italian ‘opera’ means ‘scenes.’ The correct translation will be Village Scenes. The work consists of five song-scenes connected with the village. The mood of Borys Oliinyk’s verse determined the manner of my composition: clear lines, simplicity, and romantic atmosphere. You know, whatever you do, great simplicity and great complicity will always come along. Nobody knows what is more difficult and more important. Sharoiev admitted that it was hard for him to perform the work, because everything is too bare. If you make a mistake, the music will resist like a horse. I am writing a real opera. In Seeking Revenge there are many difficulties connected with the symphonic development and dramatic collisions.”

How long have you been working on this opera?

“I have taken up Seeking Revenge not so long ago, though the opera story of Terrible Revenge is over 40 years. Borys Liatoshynsky, my teacher in the class we are sitting now [room no. 23 of the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Ukraine. – Author] once mentioned that he wanted to compose Terrible Revenge. That was a conversation during a break between the lectures. He said that he had not been able to do this out of various reasons. Besides me Viacheslav Lykhovyd and Osvaldas Balakauskas were present in class. It reminds me at the same time of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Goethe’s Faust, and Japanese anime, and American horror films. It is a very complicated psychological drama connected with the people’s folkways, his/her relations with this world and underworld, Biblical values. Hohol was not just a genius writer: he knew something about this world that nobody besides him will ever come to know. I think I will not be the only one who will write an opera based on this plot, and this is really gratifying.”


Yevhen Stankovych was born on September 19, 1942, in Svaliava, Zakarpattia Oblast. He is a winner of the Shevchenko Prize, a People’s Artist of Ukraine, professor at the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy, since 1997 an academician of the National Academy of Arts of Ukraine. In 2009 he was awarded with the title of the Hero of Ukraine. He is an author of operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works for soloists, choir and symphonic orchestra, romances, and film soundtracks.

By Yulia BENTIA, music expert