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The Eternal Dnipro – 70 years of dedicated cultural work

Jun 21, 2024 | Featured, Arts & Culture

Dnipro Artistic Director Irena Szmihelsky (left) and Accompanist Irena Tarnawsky (right) were presented with flowers at the end of the performance. Photo Credit: John Huk - Foto-Phix

Lidia M. Wasylyn for NP-UN.

The Ukrainian Dnipro Choir of Edmonton presented an exciting concert of Ukrainian folk and ritual songs on June 8, 2024 at the West End Christian Reformed Church. The program titled “On the Waves of Dnipro” included a splendid combination of old and new works, beautifully reflecting the remarkable variety and richness of Ukrainian folk music.

In its seventieth year of cultural work, the Dnipro Choir is Edmonton’s oldest Ukrainian choral ensemble. In seven decades, the choir has welcomed over 400 members, performed hundreds of concerts, staged operas, participated in music festivals and competitions, held workshops, performed on radio and television, produced eleven recordings and performed internationally. It is impossible to think of the Ukrainian cultural landscape of Edmonton without the Dnipro Choir. The current conductor and artistic director, Irena Szmihelsky, is only the third person to hold this position. This is evidence that the Dnipro Choir was built on a pure and robust vision established by its founder and first artistic director, the late Roman Soltykevych, back in 1953. Between 1976 and 2011 the choir was led under the baton of conductor and artistic director Maria Dytyniak.

The evening was dedicated to long-time Dnipro member, Luba Feduschak who passed away early in 2024. Luba was a steadfast choir member for thirty years and served as choir president for thirteen years. Her family from Saskatchewan attended the concert, that Luba had rehearsed for prior to her passing. Susan Romaniuk delivered a touching tribute.

The twenty-four melodies presented were organized in sets reflecting cultural topics. Different choir members introduced each set with well thought out commentary. Prayer to the Virgin Mary, an excerpt from Taras Shevchenko’s original epic poem “Maria,” was masterfully performed with Michael Buckler as soloist and set a high bar for the remainder of the concert.

Following unexpectedly, were melodies of the winter cycle. As unusual as it was to hear melodies of the Christmas season in June, the two shchedrivky, conveyed wishes of good fortune, health, fertility and bountiful harvests. The inimitable sounds of Shchedryk, demonstrated why this unforgettable melody is the Ukrainian gift to the world’s holiday repertoire.

With brutal war again being endured by the Ukrainian Nation, it was fitting to have a set dedicated to patriotism and the resilience of the Ukrainian people. The now well know and poignant Plyve Kacha-The Duckling Swims was performed by the men of the choir with bass Michael Buckler as soloist. They gathered in a circle on centre stage, some with their backs to the audience, symbolically standing around a grave, biding farewell to a beloved lost in the war. The warm, deep male voices were exquisitely suited to this mournful melody that has become an unofficial anthem of the current war.

The cycle of wedding songs included three melodies by one of Ukraine’s most notable contemporary composers, Myroslav Skoryk. One would expect wedding songs to be upbeat, yet Skoryk’s melodies, echoing familiar folk melodies, address the sadness of a young, orphaned bride marrying far from home, without family. In this set, soprano Solomiia Holiak as soloist provided a moving performance and was joined by an equally solid solo performance by tenor Roman Konowalec.

In the next set, the choir pivoted to ritual melodies associated with the mid-summer feast of Kupalo with mythical roots in the pagan traditions of pre-Christian Ukraine. The first song, On the Feast of Kupalo arranged by Leopold Yashchenko, hearkened back to the 1970’s unique sound of the then popular Ukrainian band Kobza. The first half of the concert concluded with a collaboration of the choir and a quartet of female dancers from Vinok Worldance under the direction of Leanne Koziak (a choir member.) Dancers Katie Calverley, Taisa Corsaro, Adriana Koziak Carter and Truus Verkly performed a tender dance reflecting the melodies by 20th century Ukrainian composer Ihor Shamo from his unique choral folk opera, The Yatran Games.

The second half of the concert continued to showcase the choir’s versatility with four short sets of familiar folk and love songs. These arrangements were by Ukrainian musical greats Oleksander Koshets, Mykola Lysenko, Anatoliy Kos-Anatolskyi and Mykola Leontovych as well as more contemporary composers and arrangers including Hryhori Vereta, Volodymyr Zubytskyi, Andriy Kushnirenko, Hryhori Veryovka, Viktor Hrytsyshyn, Oleksandr Bondarenko, Anatoli Avdiyevskyi and Yevhen Kozak.

This set evoked memories of long ago learned melodies sung by our parents and grandparents or at community events or around the campfires of youth. The men of Dnipro gave a longing performance of the treasured melody I Play the Bandura (Взяв би а бандуру). The song Drymba, vocally imitated the sounds of the Ukrainian Jaw Harp. Familiar love songs spoke of romance, finding a husband, discouraging unwanted suitors, flirtations and everlasting love. These sets were enriched with more exceptional solo performances by sopranos Fiona Kurylowycz and Solomiia Holiak. The women of the choir performed the humorous The Encounter of Two Godmothers (Прийшла Кума до Kумоньки) that was charming and playful.

The choice of the repertoire and the order of performance were clearly intended to maximize their impact on the audience. The choir succeeded, as the final lyrical folk song set delivered three beloved melodies that crowned the evening’s performance with joy, providing the proverbial ‘happy ending’ to the concert. In this set memorable solos were performed by alto Anna Zavyiboroda and tenor Roman Konowalec.

Overall, many of the melodies were familiar, others less so, some were ancient and others contemporary. However, each selection in the program was like a little surprise, creating anticipation and providing enjoyment.

Marvellous accompaniment was provided throughout the concert by the multi-talented, long time Dnipro Choir member Irena Tarnawsky who is the choir’s principal accompanist and collaborative pianist since 1976. Her playing appeared effortless and beautifully supported the choir, making her an essential part of the Dnipro Choir.

The Dnipro Choir again showed its commitment to the preservation of Ukrainian culture and support for the people of Ukraine by offering a beautiful original painting as a prize for donations to the Canada Ukraine Foundation. The creator and choir member Anna Zavyiboroda is a newcomer from the Poltava region. Her dramatic painting was featured in the promotional materials for the concert. In her own words: “The rolling waves were inspired by the deep, mighty waters of Ukraine’s Dnipro River and the energy of the waves symbolize the grandeur and beauty of our culture which is full of life in our hearts and souls even though we are far from our homeland. I chose fiery yellow for the sky because I believe that the brightest sun will shine once again over my free and peaceful Ukraine!”

Thoughtful closing remarks were provided by the artistic director and conductor of the Dnipro Choir, Irena Szmihelsky. Her words distilled the everlasting, life-giving meaning of folk music in Ukrainian culture. She said, “The Ukrainian folk song – a wonder, a marvel. What a powerful force it hides within itself. Centuries pass, one generation is replaced by another, circumstances, perspectives, social systems change, devastating wars and famines shake the world. And yet, today, the core of the folk song still comforts, carrying its original charm, unfading youth embracing us as if by the arms of our Mother – Ukraine. The melodious Ukrainian folk song is the soul of its nation. The heart and voice of these old melodies speak out to the world even in today’s time.”

Audience response to the concert was very positive. Orest Soltykevych, son of Dnipro’s founder, the late Roman Soltykevych, and an experienced choir conductor himself, thought his father would have been pleased with the concert. Orest said two things impressed him. First, “the many young voices in the choir and that changes the sound of the choir and changes it for the better. Second, is the balance between new works and older, well-known works. The Dnipro Choir is the oldest existing choir in Edmonton and has been a significant creative entity in our community for a long time. Dnipro is the standard for formal classical Ukrainian choirs.”

Performer and artist Anna Zavyiboroda was delighted to be part of the concert and is happy “to be part of a group that reminds people of their culture even if they are on the other side of the world.” She spoke highly of her experiences with the choir and was pleased “with the positive reactions she could see on the audience’s faces and in conversations after the performance.”

Recent arrival to Edmonton Pastor Oleksandеr Lushchyk thanked the choir for giving the audience an opportunity to discover Ukrainian culture from all corners of Ukraine. He said, “It is nice to see that for 70 years, the choir has preserved the goals of its founder, and brings Ukrainian culture and traditions to society. I was impressed because the faces of the singers show how they put their heart into their singing and they do this for the preservation of Ukrainian culture. It is very nice that the choir includes Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Canadians of Ukrainian ancestry as well as newcomers. This integration helps newcomers a lot to emotionally adapt to life in Canada.”

May the Ukrainian Dnipro Choir of Edmonton endure into the future, like the immortal flowing waves of its namesake, the Dnipro River!

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