Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau.
With an illustrious political career which spanned 22 years as an MLA, numerous cabinet postings including such senior ones as Health and Education, plus a session as Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, it may be tempting to remember Gene Zwozdesky simply for his achievements in that particular field.
But Gene was a man of many talents, none the least of which was music. Not only did he play several instruments, sing in choirs, conduct orchestras, but was a prolific composer in several genres, from Ukrainian folk and classical, to country music.
He was also a musical prodigy, recording his first album of Ukrainian folk songs at the age of at the tender age of 12 and it was one of these songs that opened the “Gene Zwozdesky: The Man & His Music” tribute concert held at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, September 17. Quite appropriately, this number, “Казала Мені Мати” (My Mother Told Me) from “21 Songs For Ukrainian Children” was performed by his son, Myron.
This was followed by “Kazka Medley”, arranged by Gene’s brother Willi and performed by students of St Martin Elementary School. Next, Jazz pianist John Stetch added his improvisational touch to renditions of “Ivanku, Ivanku”, “Halyna’s Lament” and “Night of the Kozaks”.
Gene was a member of the Edmonton CYMK (Canadian Ukrainian Youth Association) Choir, eventually becoming its conductor from 1979 to 1982. During his tenure, Gene organized and directed this largest ever CYMK Ensemble on a tour of Alberta with nine shows of “Steppe! Around Alberta”.
One of the pieces he conducted with the CYMK Choir was the patriotic marching song “Засяло Cонце Золоте – The Golden Sun Has Set”, which was performed by the Yavir Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton (formerly just Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton) of which he was a member for many years. Yavir also performed one of their most popular numbers, “Той Старий Кожух – That Old Sheepskin Coat”, the heart-rending tribute to the Ukrainian pioneers who settled the Prairies, composed by Gene to lyrics written by his mother, Anna.
In 1963, Gene joined the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers where he danced, and later, became their Music Director for 25 years. He was also Music Director for dance groups Cheremosh (Edmonton), Rusalka (Winnipeg), Tryzub (Calgary) and Yevshan (Saskatoon).
Both Shumka and Cheremosh joined in to pay tribute by performing to his arrangements, Shumka with their “Classic Hopak” and Cheremosh with “Козаки – The Kozaks”.
Gene composed a wide variety of folk, bluegrass and country tunes and, in appreciation of his musical contributions, he was inducted into CFCW’s Ukrainian Music Hall of Fame. Six of these songs closed out the formal portion of the program – “Radar of Love”, “Tattered Bag” and “What Love Can Do” performed by the Carolines, “Broken Lover” and “How To Play Golf” by Jake Matthews and “These Eyes of Mine”, written for his wife Christine’s birthday and sung by his daughter Ariana Whitlow, who produced the show. The band was led by Devin Hart, joined by Andrew Miller, Peter Belec and Dan Churchill.
The entire cast came out for the finale – a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads”.
Following the concert, a reception was held in the lobby featuring entertainment by the Broken Banjos and the Northern Bluegrass Music Circle Society.
The show was directed by Joshua Semchuk. The Organizing Committee consisted of Leah Sarango, Sherry Schaefer, Joshua Semchuk, Darka Tarnawsky, Larisa Sembaliuk-Cheladyn, Dianne Young, Christine Zwozdesky, Ariana Whitlow and Myron Zwozdesky.
Gene had many volunteer commitments most of which involved a musical component. He served as a Director on the Edmonton Folk Arts Council, the local Canada Day Committee, the Heritage Festival, the Alberta Recording Industry Association, the Youth Emergency Shelter Society, the Edmonton Food Bank, the Alberta Friends of Golf, the World University Games, the Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society, and the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival.
One of his proudest volunteer experiences was acting as the Executive Producer of “Sviato 25” – the largest, outdoor celebration of Ukrainian arts, culture, heritage and spirituality in Alberta history, commemorating the 25th Anniversary of Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence.
Proceeds from the concert went to support the Gene Zwozdesky Centre at Norwood. This new health care facility, focuses on cutting-edge rehabilitative care, will serve seniors and other patients following major surgery/treatments, will decrease pressure on hospitals and will train medical professionals everywhere in best practices for continuing care.