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Canberra at its very best — the Ukraine concert

Larissa Kovalchuk on bandura. Photo: Martin Ollman

Music / “Concert for Ukraine,” Llewellyn Hall, May 31. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA

IT was Canberra at its very best as a large crowd packed into Llewellyn Hall to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine through the healing power of music.

It turned out to be a demonstration of musical unity, too, as, although the concert was the brainchild of Canberra International Music Festival director Roland Peelman, the event was staged together with the ANU School of Music and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

Given the subject matter of the day, there were sombre moments, but uplifting ones, too, proof apparent, ANU professor Kate Mitchell, director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts, told those present of the “necessity” of the arts at such a time of crisis.

The concert opened quietly with John Tavener’s “Song for Athena, performed by the ANU chamber choir, and members of Oriana Chorale and Kompactus youth choir, conducted by Peelman himself.

Peelman ad Goodwin perform “Silent Songs.” Photo: Martin Ollman

But it was not long before the sense of Ukraine asserted itself with the bandura-playing and singing of Larissa Kovalchuk, recently featured at the International Music Festival. She was later joined by the chamber ensemble.

The first half of the concert was predominantly sombre, with works carefully selected to create the mood of reflection, seen especially in the performance by tenor Andrew Goodwin and Peelman of three “Silent Songs” by the exiled Ukrainian composer and pianist, Valentyn Vasylyovych Silvestrov.

Before the interval, Kim Cunio, head of the ANU School of Music, recited “El Malei Rachamim”, a Jewish prayer for the soul of a person who has died, and the audience left in silence.

After interval the pace picked up.

L to R, Ajaye, Barton, Bukowsky, Mackey and Stott. Photo: Martin Ollman

ANU School of music jazz legends Miroslav Bukowsky, John Mackey, Greg Stott and Eric Ajaye performed  a short interlude of prepared music, then didgeridoo master William Barton joined the jazz musicians for an extraordinary improvised piece, which had elements of both lament and joy.

It was fascinating to see Ajaye on bass and Stott on guitar picking up right from the start, while it took trumpeter Bukowsky and sax player Mackey, whose eyes were riveted on Barton, a bit longer to work out when to come in – this piece was a highlight of the concert.

With an unerring sense of theatre, Cunio then told the delighted audience that Barton had just been appointed by the ANU as associate professor of music, joining five other indigenous musicians on faculty.

Packed house. Photo: Martin Ollman

What followed was no less entertaining, as Max McBride took to the podium to conduct Goodwin and the ANU Orchestra, augmented with CSO guests,  performing  “Where Have You Gone, A Golden Days Of My Spring?” from Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Eugene Onegin”.

Maybe, some thought, odd to choose a Russian aria, but the irony was clearly seen in Lensky’s words as he sings of his impending death at the hands of the overbearing, arrogant Onegin — there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The orchestra and guests remained on stage to perform Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op. 73, then it was time for Kovalchuk, now dressed in Uranian colours, to return to the stage with three Ukrainian songs and the State Anthem of Ukraine, all rewarded with keen applause.


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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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