“…It makes no difference to me, if that son says a prayer or not. It makes great difference to me, that evil folk and wicked men, attack our Ukraine, once so free…” — Taras Shevchenko, Ukrainian poet
For fourth-year music student Mykyta Duvalko, performing a Ukrainian art song in front of an audience is his expression of defiance against the Russian regime that is devastating his native country.
“Ukrainian art songs have been oppressed and censored by both the Russian Empire and then, later, by the Soviet Union. And so just singing these pieces is like an act of defiance; it’s directly going against the laws that forbade this music to be even written, let alone sung or distributed (centuries ago),” said Duvalko, who is also in third-year psychology for his double degree program.
Born in Canada, Duvalko has close family ties to Ukraine, with family members living in various parts of the country, including in Kyiv.
“It’s scary,” he said. “So far, they’re all alive. But I don’t know if that’s going to change. And I keep hoping that things get better. We’re trying to work with them to maybe get some of them into Canada to live with us just because it’s safer here than it is there.”
Duvalko, along with other current and former students from Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music, will be part of a music recital called, Songs for Ukraine, this Friday, April 8, 6 p.m. at the Paul Davenport Theatre.
What began as an ordinary studio recital by Faculty of Music professor James Westman’s class featuring Ukrainian art songs, has now morphed into a concert that is much more than just an end-of-term class performance. It has become a community’s expression of support and solidarity with Ukrainian people following Russia’s unprovoked aggression against the sovereign nation.
“We here at the music faculty really train musicians to heal people’s souls or to heal their minds.” ~ James Westman
“When a tragedy like this happened, the overwhelming support that we’ve received has made it clear to me that this is so valuable for the students because they get a chance to heal an audience,” said Westman.
Westman said the decision to do Ukrainian songs for his students’ studio recital was made in October last year, months before Russia invaded Ukraine in February. It became apparent, when the war broke out in Ukraine, that the performances were going to be more symbolic, more meaningful than previous recitals his students have ever performed.
“I’m sharing my culture in a way to benefit my people. And it’s one way that I know that I can help those in Ukraine right now,” said Duvalko, a tenor who will be singing two solo pieces, Willow and Testament, by Kyrylo Stetsenko, a Ukrainian composer and activist in the late 19th to the early 20th century.
The musical works of Stetsenko and two of his 19th-century contemporaries, Mykola Lysenko and Yakiv Stepovyi, will be prominently featured in the Songs for Ukraine performance this Friday, said Olena Bratishko, DMA’18, collaborative pianist and coach. These composers were born during the reign of the Russian Empire and died under the regime of the Soviet Union.
“At the time of the Russian Empire, it was forbidden to sing in Ukrainian, it was forbidden to have theatrical plays in Ukrainian, it was forbidden to print books in Ukrainian,” said Bratishko. “But nevertheless, these composers were still doing that underground. They were promoting Ukrainian culture. They wanted the Ukrainian culture to keep living and they wanted generations to know our history.”
An important aspect of Ukrainian art songs is poetry, said Bratishko, and a celebration of Ukrainian art songs is not complete without paying homage to its national poet Taras Shevchenko, who was a huge influence to generations of Ukrainian art song writers and musicians.
“Shevchenko was revered as a Ukrainian prophet, because everything that he was speaking about at that time, is true now,” said Bratishko, whose doctoral dissertation in 2018 focused on Ukrainian art songs.
One particular poem by Shevchenko, Meni odnakovo, chy budu (English translation: It makes no difference to me), was put into art song by Mykola Lysenko. This piece, called Indifference, will be performed by Westman, a baritone.
“I have yet to get through this song where I am not shedding tears,” said Westman, of the emotions conjured up by the song’s lyrics. “To say, ‘You can do whatever you want to me, I’m indifferent, but don’t take away our culture or our land,’ and these words were written 175 years ago.
“These poems are everlasting. And many of them are so poignant to what is going on right now.”.
Songs for Ukraine will feature 23 solo and choral performances, including the Ukrainian anthem and Prayer for Ukraine. Admission to the show is free, and people are encouraged to make a direct donation to the London Ukrainian Centre to help with humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.