The shadow of the war in Ukraine once again hovered over the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival on Friday when it began its three-day tribute to the 20th-century composer Borys Liatoshynsky at Merkin Hall.
Hours before the opening-night program, which highlighted composers who influenced Liatoshynsky, the International Criminal Court accused the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, of war crimes, and issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children. Oleksii Holubov, Ukraine’s consul general in New York, recounted that news to the audience on Friday and was greeted with applause.
When the 2022 festival took place, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was fresh, with Putin attempting to justify his actions in part by claiming that Ukraine had no independent cultural identity. Holubov, in his remarks on Friday, said that this year’s festival, the fourth, comes at a time “when our cultural identity, our history and our music are at stake.”
On Saturday, the second day of programming traced a pedagogical lineage from Liatoshynsky to several living composers. The Sunday afternoon program pairs two Liatoshynsky quartets with works by Bartok and Copland, composers who, like Liatoshynsky, are credited with defining a national style. Again and again, reclamation resists erasure.
Born at the end of the 19th century, Liatoshynsky lived through the Ukrainian War of Independence, the rise of Lenin and Stalin and both world wars. He embraced expressionism early in his career and became an influential teacher at what was then known as Kiev Conservatory, where his students included Valentyn Sylvestrov, Ukraine’s most famous living composer.
The State of the War
Liatoshynsky, a composer with an intensely volatile style, wrote music that didn’t comply with the Soviet Union’s aesthetic of socialist realism. He was dogged by censors and branded a formalist. After Stalin’s death, he found his way back to his original compositional voice late in life and is now remembered as the father of Ukrainian contemporary music.
Liatoshynsky’s Violin Sonata (1926), a thorny work full of short bursts of agitation, opened the program on Friday. The violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv gave the piece’s core thematic material — a melody that skitters, scrapes and then leaps upward — a bold arc, and she applied an eerie calm to passages marked sul ponticello (a technique of bowing near the bridge that produces a high, scratchy sound). At times, though, she and the pianist Steven Beck seemed to set aside interpretive matters just to get through a piece of hair-raising difficulty.
Following the Violin Sonata, Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano (1913) sounded almost lissome, with the clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich shaping long melodies with a full, lovely tone and understated warmth. The violist Colin Brookes and the pianist Daniel Anastasio likewise cultivated the beauty of Liatoshynsky’s Two Pieces for Viola and Piano (Op. 65), with Anastasio painting a dappled night sky in the Nocturne and Brookes hinting at a mixture of solitude and disturbance.
The conductor James Baker made perfect sense out of the unusual instrumentation for Liatoshynsky’s Two Romances (Op. 8), which uses voice, string quartet, clarinet, horn and harp. He highlighted Liatoshynsky’s text painting in the first song, “Reeds,” with strings that rustled like paper and then refracted like shards of light. The bass Steven Hrycelak was a genial narrator with an oaken timbre.
Liatoshynsky’s avant-garde-minded students inspired him, and they were represented by two pieces. Sylvestrov’s “Mystère” was a symphony of percussion in which the alto flutist Ginevra Petrucci elegantly snaked her way through a battery of timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, Thai gong and more. Each instrument cut through the air with its own vibrations — splashes, thwacks, tinkles, knocks — for a cumulative effect that was captivating to experience live. The brief “Volumes,” by Volodymyr Zahorstev, blared forth with a chaotic play of instrumental timbres.
The concert closed with Liatoshynsky’s “Concert Etude-Rondo,” a devilish showpiece given a crisp performance by Anastasio. This was a late piece, written in 1962 and revised in 1967, a year before Liatoshynsky’s death. Its stubborn character extends from driving octaves in the bass to shattered-glass effects in the piano’s delicate upper reaches.
The transliteration of composers’ names in this review follows a 2010 resolution adopted by the government of Ukraine, according to Leah Batstone, the festival’s founder and creative director. As Holubov said at the start of the concert, Ukrainian language is the heart of the Ukrainian nation — and Ukrainian music, its soul.
It was hard not to see — or rather, hear — a symbol for the persistence of the Ukrainian people in the uncontainable, endlessly restless music of a composer who refused to concede his identity to the state.
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