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Concert of Ukrainian Sacred Music. 100th anniversary celebration of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, Edmonton

Apr 11, 2024 | Featured, Arts & Culture

St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral Choir, conducted by Orest Soltykevych, performing at the Sacred Music Concert

Ksenia Maryniak, Ukrainian Music Society of Alberta.

Ushering in the closing weekend of a year-long centennial celebration, on Friday 17 November 2023 a “Concert of Ukrainian Sacred Music” was held in Edmonton at St. John’s Cathedral of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.

As related by lifelong parishioner Gloria Zaharia, a key Centennial Committee member and the chief inspiration behind the concert, “When we began planning the celebrations, we decided on a full weekend of events—but we also chose to have other events on a monthly basis for the year preceding the closing weekend. For example: fellowship presentations with Father Cornell Zubritsky, blessing of 12 mosaic panels created by Theodora Harasymiw that were installed in the St. John’s Cultural Centre auditorium, re-opening of the Ukrainian Women’s Association newly renovated museum, a car rally with participants visiting other parishes and historic sites in Edmonton, and a lecture series by John-Paul Himka about the church’s history.

“For the Friday night, we had to have an event that was more than speeches or a wine-and-cheese party. So—being a singer—I thought that a concert of Ukrainian sacred music, with several choirs participating, would be appropriate.”

Accordingly, invitations to perform were sent to five Edmonton choral ensembles: St. John’s Cathedral Choir, Axios Men’s Ensemble, the Dnipro Choir, Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir, and Yavir Ukrainian Men’s Choir. Mrs. Zaharia continues, “All of the choirs I contacted agreed very readily, which was wonderful.”

Welcoming remarks were given by Father Cornell Zubritsky: “We are very overjoyed and pleased that you are here to join us in this celebration of Ukrainian sacred choral music. This evening represents a lovely testament to the collaborative nature of the Ukrainian music scene in the city of Edmonton and the province of Alberta. Each choir performing is connected to this cathedral’s choir through choristers and conductors—really truly a wonderful thing.”

Rev. Zubritsky also singled out Alice Chumer as the longest-serving conductor of St. John’s Cathedral Choir, because “in the history of the hundred years of our cathedral, she conducted the choir for 44 of those years.”
In an additional tribute to the “generational inheritances in our hromada,” Father Cornell declared his “great pleasure that this evening the Cathedral Choir is being conducted by Orest, the son of a former conductor, Roman Soltykewych”—who, he noted, fell asleep in the Lord exactly 47 years previously.

As emphasized by Mrs. Zaharia, “We decided to use the November 17th event as a fundraiser for the children of war-torn Ukraine and to sponsor the evening, without charging for the concert and following social reception.” Rev. Zubritsky concluded his introduction by thanking attendees for their donations to the UOCC’s Humanitarian Aid Fund for Ukraine—and announcing that “specifically this concert’s funds will be going to Ukrainian children who are victims of the illegal and genocidal war inflicted upon Ukraine by the Russian Federation.”

Referring to the performers, Mrs. Zaharia commented, “All of the announcers did a masterful job of introducing their choir and the music.”

The first set was given by the St. John’s Cathedral Choir, conducted by Orest Soltykevych. With well-balanced voices and a lively style, they sang three pieces: “Chorale” by Mykhailo Haivoronsky (1892–1949), “Cherubic Hymn” arr. by Yakiv Yatsynevych (1869–1945), and “Rejoice the Soul of Thy Servant” (Psalm 86; poss. by Dmytro Bortniansky, 1751–1825).

The next set was sung by the Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir, conducted by Lesia Pohoresky. As stated in their introduction, “Today’s concert offers something new for Viter: it offers us the opportunity to expand our repertoire to themes we’ve never sung before—to harness our energy and apply it to sacred music.” Their first piece was the “Nicene Creed” arrangement by Mykhailo Telezhynsky (1886–1939), with soloists Myron Zwozdesky and John Bridges (grandsons of the late Dr. Leo Faryna, who was known for singing this same solo in the Cathedral). Viter’s second piece was a choral version (arr. Stanislav Chuienko) of the “Prayer” from the opera Zaporozhian Cossack Beyond the Danube by Semen Hulak-Artemovsky (1813–73). And the third piece was a contemporary ballad by Taras Petrynenko (1953–), “Lord, Have Mercy On Us,” with the lovely soprano solo sung by Susan Jereniuk.

The third choir was the Axios Men’s Ensemble, with guest conductor Oleksandra Hryniuk. Following a fascinating and informative introduction given by choir member Dushan Bednarsky, their selections, sung in the original Old Church Slavonic, were: a medieval hymn, “I Will Bring Praise to Sweet Jesus,” lyrics and music by Bishop Dmytrii of Rostov (Tuptalo; 1651–1709), the Vespers prayer “Gladsome Light” arrangement by Viktor Hrytsyshyn (1955–), and “Blessed is the Man” (Psalm 1), melody of the Kyivan Caves Monastery.

Next to perform was the recently renamed Yavir Ukrainian Men’s Choir, conducted by Viatcheslaw (Slava) Morozow, which will be celebrating its own, 40th anniversary in the coming year. They sang the Lenten chant “Let My Prayer Be as Incense before You” (Psalm 141) arrangement by Roman Hurko (1962–), also in Old Church Slavonic, and a “Cherubic Hymn” arrangement by Bortniansky in Modern Ukrainian translation and with the soli replaced by tutti voices.

The final choir performing in this concert of sacred choral music was the Dnipro Ukrainian Ensemble, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2023. Dnipro was founded by the talented and prolific Roman Soltykewych as a men’s chorus, remaining so until the 1970s, when the choir added women’s voices. After Soltykewych’s untimely death Maria Dytyniak took over and helmed the ensemble as conductor and artistic director for 35 years. Sacred music has always been a part of Dnipro’s concert repertoire—especially, under Dytyniak, the longer-form concerti of the “Golden Era” composers Bortniansky and Artem Vedel. Conducted by Irena Szmihelsky, Dnipro performed a “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” (Psalm 103 as the First Antiphon of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy) composed by Rev. Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882–1922), “Be Still and Know That I Am God” (Psalm 46, in English) and “Ave Maria,” both by Hurko, and a “Beatitudes” (Third Antiphon) composed by Mykola Leontovych (1877–1921), with tenor solo by Peter Tarnawsky.

After these compelling performances—and Father Cornell’s thanks and invitation to the reception, with real Ukrainian tortes and coffee, in the St. John’s Cultural Centre auditorium— Szmihelsky led Dnipro and everyone present in a stirring and heartfelt congregational rendition of “Prayer for Ukraine,” music by Mykola Lysenko (1862–1912), lyrics by Oleksander Konysky.

Summarizing the inspiring concert, Mrs. Zaharia said, “I am very pleased with the success of the Concert of Ukrainian Sacred Music. Each choir brought a very high level of performance, which resulted in many accolades and comments of gratitude for the beauty of the evening. It was so fitting for the kick-off to the celebration of St. John’s Cathedral’s 100th anniversary weekend. The music was both peaceful and spiritually uplifting. It was amazing to hear such a beautiful variety of music, spanning from the very old to that of contemporary composers. What a rich choral heritage we have!”

As part of the concluding weekend of the St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral 100th anniversary celebrations, the November 17 Concert of Ukrainian Sacred Music was followed by an Anniversary Banquet on November 18 at St. John’s Cultural Centre and by a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy on November 19 at St. John’s Cathedral.

In addition to an excellent segment about the November 17 Concert of Ukrainian Sacred Music that was produced for the “Alberta Kontakt” program on OMNI TV, the entire concert was recorded and is posted on the YouTube channel “St. John Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral – Edmonton,” with several hundred views to date. In the absence of a printed programme, which was regrettably missed at the concert and leaves a gap in the archival record, these videos are a valuable documentation of this very special, momentous, and worthy event.

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