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Literature and Art

11.05.2017

INTERVIEW WITH LARYSA KUZMENKO

 

 

The following article was prepared by Orpheus soprano, Sylvia Hunter:

I meet Toronto composer Larysa Kuzmenko on a grey and cloudy afternoon in late January, in the studio of her west-end home—a cheerful and welcoming space filled with books, plants, LPs and CDs, cat figurines, and not one but two grand pianos, with huge windows overlooking winter-bare trees. Together with an Orpheus Choir colleague and his recording equipment, I’m here to talk about her oratorio Золоті Жнива / Golden Harvest / La Moisson dorée, whose Ontario premiere we’ll be presenting in May 2017.

Golden Harvest was commissioned by conductor Laurence Ewashko, with grant funding from the Shevchenko Foundation, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Ukrainian immigration to Canada in 2016. In addition, of course, 2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. “A work describing the challenges of emigration,” Ewashko writes, “seemed fitting for these two important anniversaries.” He chose Larysa Kuzmenko for the commission both because of her Ukrainian heritage and familiarity with the language and culture, and for her “very lyrical and accessible” compositional style.

The oratorio’s title refers to one of the most significant events in Canada’s agricultural history: the introduction and spread of rust-resistant Halychanka (aka Red Fife) spring wheat from Ukraine across the Canadian prairies. Halychanka—named for the Galicia region in western Ukraine—helped turn the Prairies into “Canada’s breadbasket,” and Ukrainian immigration to Canada into a golden success story.

This large-scale work presented a number of unusual challenges for Kuzmenko. First and foremost was that of composing 30 minutes’ worth of complex music—for large orchestra, chorus, and two soloists—in just 10 months. “I didn’t think I’d make it,” she says, “but I had the support of my husband [fellow composer Gary Kulesha], and he said, ‘You’ll make it—you always do!’” We talk about the realities of a creative profession: it’s wonderful when inspiration strikes, but even when it doesn’t, there are still deadlines to meet, notes to write, and music librarians to placate.

The beautiful and unusual Ukrainian/English/French trilingual libretto presented its own set of challenges. It’s the work of Ukrainian-Canadian poet Talia Zajac, who is fluent in all three languages and is also familiar with the history of Ukrainian immigration to Canada—a set of experiences which, as Laurence Ewashko writes, “speaks to any new Canadian who had to survive in the wilderness [literal or otherwise] to build our nation.” Zajac and Kuzmenko worked closely together to adapt the text to the emerging shape of the piece. What began as a much longer libretto regularly alternating the three languages was gradually honed and shaped into the final text of the oratorio, which deploys its linguistic and musical forces in organic and intentional ways: the soprano and baritone soloists, representing the mother and father of the Ukrainian immigrant family whose story we are telling, sing only in Ukrainian, while the choir, taking the role of narrator, has passages in all three languages (and sometimes sings in more than one at once!). An instrumental overture showcases the orchestra. Kuzmenko says she found setting French particularly difficult, because of the significant differences in syllabification between spoken and sung French.

For Ewashko, whose family came to Canada as part of the second wave of Ukrainian immigrants in the 1920s, the importance of celebrating Ukrainian heritage in 2017 is underscored by the stories he heard from relatives who were “punished for speaking in Ukrainian [in and around] school” but who nevertheless succeeded in retaining their language and culture. Kuzmenko, whose family arrived here in 1954, recalls a childhood characterized by financial hardship and hard work (her mother worked in a restaurant; her father, an electrician, fixed furnaces by day and went to school at night), but also by “100% support” for her musical endeavours. Though the details may differ, the general shape of her story is familiar to any child of immigrant parents—which makes it, in a way, the quintessential Canadian origin story.

In one of the most fascinating parts of our conversation (at least for me), Kuzmenko delves into the challenges of giving a large choral/orchestral piece shape and atmosphere. She talks about shaping the oratorio with the through-line of a Ukrainian folk song, and when she explains how she set out to create a feeling of mystery in a passage about the secret (because illegal) distribution of immigration pamphlets in Ukraine, I can’t stop myself from breaking in to tell her how much I’m looking forward to performing this piece. Another pivotal section features the mother of the Ukrainian immigrant family breaking to her husband the devastating news of the death of their son; to underscore the individual and universal tragedy of this moment, the soprano soloist is literally underscored by the men of the chorus singing a traditional Ukrainian funeral dirge. “If you’ve got a text that’s good, like this text that I got from Talia,” Kuzmenko says, “it makes your life [as the composer] a lot easier.”

We talk about inspiration and writer’s block (and deadlines). Kuzmenko explains that when she gets stuck, she’ll often write two or three versions of the same passage before finding the one—the one that works, that will make sense to the singers and the orchestra as well as to the composer. When she talks about her composition process, I’m struck by the language she uses—metaphors of texture and textile arts (making the sound glossy by adding a vibraphone; weaving the textures of choir and orchestra into a tapestry) and of visual arts (like an artist laying down colours on a blank canvas, she says, “you know which colours to mix to make it right”).

Before we say our farewells, I ask Kuzmenko what she would say to a person who’s about to perform her oratorio, or to hear it for the first time. “I hope,” she says, “that the listener has been taken on some kind of journey. If I moved even one person in the audience, then I’ve done my job, and I’m happy.”

In presenting the Ontario premiere of Золоті Жнива / Golden Harvest / La Moisson dorée (2016), the Orpheus Choir of Toronto celebrates the cultural and economic contributions of Ukrainian Canadians, showcasing not only the composer and librettist but also our guest artists: critically acclaimed Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, reprising her role from the 2016 world premiere in Winnipeg; the award-winning Vesnivka women’s choir, conducted by Halyna Kvitka Kondracki; the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir; and visual artist Christina Kudryk. Our other soloist is the internationally acclaimed Canadian baritone James Westman, whose connection to the Orpheus Choir dates back to his stint as a Sidgwick Scholar (chorister-soloist) early in his career.

Rounding out this program focused on Canada’s values of diversity and inclusion is John Estacio’s 2008 cantata The Houses Stand Not Far Apart (libretto by John Murrell), a work the composer describes as “pleading for peace, praying for understanding, and searching for hope.”

The Orpheus Choir’s IDENTITIES: Strong and Free, part of our Canada 150 concert season, takes place at Koerner Hall in Toronto on May 14, 2017, at 3:30 pm. Ticketing services are provided by RCM Tickets. Contact the box office by phone at 416-408-0208

 

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