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Viryovka Choir — upholding traditions and facing the modern times
Anatoly Avdiyevsky, general director and artistic director of the Viryovka Choir, has devoted to the Ukrainian traditional song most of his life. Olesya Sandyha, a free-lance journalist, has interviewed Mr Avdiyevsky exclusively for the Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
“Such-and-such Ukrainian singer, or artist, or whoever or whatever is well-known in Ukraine and beyond its borders.” Usually, when I read or hear a statement like this, I feel sort of embarrassed and uncomfortable, but when it is applied to the Viryovka Choir, I don’t cringe inwardly — because it is true. We are not talking, of course, about popularity comparable to that of famous pop stars, but those who care for Ukrainian traditional singing and dancing do know — and admire — the choir named after Hryhory Viryovka. Even in the coldest times of the Cold war, the Viryovka Choir was allowed by the Soviet authorities to go beyond the Iron Curtain on tours. And the Choir did visit a great many countries of the world, and not necessarily those with Ukrainian communities. Their appeal was —and is — universal.
When did your music become of an overriding interest for you?
In early childhood, I’d say. My parents liked to sing, and did it well. Neither of them had any formal music education — both were veterinarians. But they loved music, and probably this love was passed on to me on the genetic level. My mother used to tell me that at the age of three or four I was fascinated by brass orchestras whenever I heard them play. Back in the nineteen thirties, brass orchestras were a very popular thing, and on all the holidays or often during the weekends you could hear them playing all over town. I was so thrilled to watch and hear musicians play that I’d run home afterwards and getting the covers from two big saucepans, I’d march around the house banging them one against the other like cymbals and making wonderful noise. I’m afraid no one else found that noise wonderful.
But did you learn to actually play any musical instruments?
Yes, I did, partly by myself, partly watching others play. Also, I was shown a bit how to do by other villagers. But it was the singing that I did best. There were get-togethers at which I sang. I was still a child when young people began inviting me to join their get-togethers, not really to participate but to sing along. I was good at it. From time to time, we even went to the neighbouring village to join their get-togethers. There were all kinds of traditional songs that used to be sung in those times in the countryside — religious songs, wedding songs, work songs, songs for all occasions. A lot of singing and dancing was done at wedding parties. Of course, there were no professional orchestras in our village, but there were people who could play musical instruments and they would get together, pick up tunes, practice a little and then play at weddings or on other occasions.
What part of the country are you originally from?
I was born in the land of Kirovohradshchyna, but my father, to save his family from starvation in the great famine of the early nineteen-thirties, took us to the land of Odeshchyna where the food situation was much better. I was born in the year 1933, the year when millions died in Ukraine from starvation. My grandma and my parents used to tell me stories of those times which made the hair stand on end. Practically all the people in that village in Kirovohradshchyna where I was born, died of hunger. People died like flies, just dropped dead. Those who could still move around and do something buried the dead — and sometimes among the dead were those still living, but in a coma. It was quite a big village too, and only very few survived.
The village we moved to was a very different place. It was situated about a hundred kilometres away from the city of Odesa, in a very picturesque place. It was a village of a long history. Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some of those Cossacks who were fleeing from the Russian imperial oppression, intending to go beyond the Danube, settled down on their way there and stayed put. That’s how the village got founded, by the freedom loving Zaporizhian Cossacks. They loved to sing, and knew how to do it well. And these songs were passed on from generation to generation, and that’s how I learnt them too.
When was it that you realized you wanted to devote yourself to music?
In my early teens probably, but it’s one thing to want to become a musician and quite another thing to go ahead and become one, particularly if you are underage and live in a village. My father thought I should find myself an occupation that would feed me, and for him singing and making music was just something that everybody could do. At a family conclave it was decided that I should go to a technical school to study. I went to Odesa, applied, passed the entrance exams, was enrolled, and my future seemed to have been determined for me. Well, as it turned out, not quite so…
Once a friend of mine and I, we were taking a stroll through the streets of Odesa, and found ourselves in front of the music conservatory. So many years later, I still remember the name of the street it was in and the house number — 63 Ostrovidova Street. Besides, there was a musical school right across the street. It was a late afternoon, very warm, all the windows were open, and from every window came the sounds of musical instruments being played — the accordion, clarinet, piano, you name it. And from some windows came the singing. Passers-by slowed down, raised their heads and listened — and then moved on. But I stayed riveted to the spot. I stood there, enchanted, unable to move. After some time, I walked in, found someone in charge, and asked for an audition. And to my great surprise I was given this audition, though the auditioners seemed to be no less surprised that someone would come in like that, literally from the street and do an audition. I was asked to sing — and I sang Ukrainian songs of which I knew so many; I was given an instrument which looked like a sort of a flute and though I did not quite know how to play it, I did play. Then I was asked to play the piano — they played something for me, and I had to repeat it, and then sing the same tune. And then they gave me an accordion to play and it happened to be the instrument that I could play well enough. I was asked whether I could read notes and I told them I could not, and I saw they were impressed, but it was only when I was told, “Great! Write an application immediately! And bring your documents!” that I realized I had made it. I was overwhelmed, but then managed to say that all my documents were at that technical school. No problem, I was told. “Run to that school of yours, get your papers and bring them here. You must study to be a musician! You’ve got a perfect ear for music! It’s a God’s gift that you have!” And added many more compliments. I did run — literally — to the technical school, found the head teacher and explained what was going on. He proved to be a very decent and understanding person, and he gave me all my papers, saying, “We’re sorry to see you go, you’d definitely make a good student, but in your eyes I see that your vocation is for music. Follow your calling!” And I did.
And since that time you have fully devoted yourself to music?
Yes, that’s correct — but with a reservation. I did a lot of teaching too, but teaching music, of course. In fact, I began my teaching career when I was fifteen. I was proud to earn my own living, without asking my parents for help. I knew they were struggling to keep things going — ours was a big family. Later, I started teaching music at a college and conservatory level, and I’ve been doing it for the past thirty years.
You’ve been awarded many prizes and honorary titles, and recently you have been given the Order of the Hero of Ukraine. Do you feel the burden of fame is difficult to carry?
I take things with a good measure of irony. I became the choir’s director in 1966, after the choir’s founder, Hryhory Viryovka died…
We were the first Ukrainian choir the Soviet authorities allowed to go abroad on tours. They wanted to show the world that the people who sang such songs were a happy nation. In 1967 we went to Canada and to Mexico. We did make a big splash — we sang to packed houses, we were given flowers and thunderous ovations. When we sang such songs as Reve ta stogne Dnipr shyroky (“Roars and Moans the Dnipro Wide…”), people in the audience had tears in their eyes. And people of Ukrainian descent who attended our performances could not help recollecting their native land that they had been forced to leave. There were many reasons that drove Ukrainians abroad — poverty, political and religious persecution. During the Second World War many were taken by the Nazi Germans for forced labour to Germany and after the war they moved mostly to America. Some of the people in the audience were radically anti-Soviet and they even tried to disrupt the shows. They jeered and waved posters with anti-Soviet slogans. But in a way, it was useful for us, “Soviets” who were brainwashed by Soviet propaganda and saw things only from one, Soviet point of view, and the protests showed us there was a very different point of view.
Our tours were an unqualified success, and the Soviet communist party bosses were pleased. Once, upon our return, the then minister of culture called me on the phone and congratulated me with having been awarded an honorary title of “The Merited Artiste of Ukraine.” In the Soviet times, they liked giving such titles. Later, I was awarded the Shevchenko Prize, then the titles of The People’s Artiste of Ukraine and The People’s Artiste of the Soviet Union — but it was in the Soviet Union that one of my grandfathers was executed by the firing squad for not being too loyal to the Soviet regime and probably not making too much of a secret of it — it was a crime punished by death. In fact, we were never sure what it was that he was punished for by death. My other grandfather was pronounced to be a kulak, a wealthy peasant, and during the collectivization of farming he was exiled and disappeared without trace.
So, on the one hand, the Soviets destroyed my grandfathers and, on the other, they gave me awards and titles. There was no other way but look at things philosophically and ironically.
Is there anything in what could be called the typical Ukrainian national character that you do not like?
Yes, there is. Indifference, inertia. Passivity. Even among some of the talented musicians I know I see this indifference, lack of ambition. There’s a good joke that reveals this trait in our character. Two friends are having a drink at home. They get to be quite drunk and then one of them suddenly sees that the house is on fire. He starts shaking his friend who has fallen asleep, and shouting, “Hey, get up, let’s get out of here, quick!” The other one pries his eyes half-open and says quietly and slowly, “Why are you so jittery, man, don’t make so much fuss — people must have seen the fire already, they’ll get here in no time and pull us out.” Very true. They say it’s much better to light one little candle than to stay in darkness all the time, without trying to do anything about it.
Is there a big difference between the conditions you worked in the Soviet times and the way things are in your line of work now?
Yes, there is. In the Soviet times we kept performing and going on tours all the time. We went to very many places in the former Soviet Union, and choirs, similar to ours, came to Ukraine from other Soviet republics. The Soviets wanted to show they cared about “the development of national cultures,” and gave money for it. These days, we cannot go on tours as often as we did, but we do get a much better reception. People are much freer in expressing their emotions. A couple of years ago we went to Russia on a tour and gave a concert even in the Kremlin, in Moscow. We were given a standing ovation. The news of our success was very helpful — we had our headquarters renovated. It was the then minister of transport who was so impressed that he saw to it that we’d have our premises revamped.
What about your tours to other foreign countries?
Recently, we went to the United States, twice. The tours were organized by the Columbia Artists Company, a leading company in the field of organizing tours like ours. After the performances — and we performed in many States — Americans of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, would come to us and thank us for the emotions we had given them. Ukrainian songs can get to the heart of anybody, regardless of people’s ethnic backgrounds. Wherever we went on our tours, we again, like many years ago, performed to full houses. The most prestigious halls were packed.
Is there anything that you still want to achieve?
When I was a child, my father gave me a tricycle as a gift, and I decided to go in search of the place where the sun hid for the night. I invited my younger sister to go with me. We rode a distance of at least ten kilometres along the road before someone returning in a car to the village spotted us and took us back home… Even if you never find the place where the sun hides for the night, you should keep trying to find it. I’m still searching.
From Nina Matviyenko’s diary (Nina Matviyenko, formerly a soloist of the Viryovka Choir, is a leading performer of Ukrainian songs; see an interview with her in the current WU issue)
“Today, at the rehearsal, I clearly realized that there is no other person in the world who would be able to make us understand the essence of the songs, their emotional charge, their harmonic principles the way Avday [Anatoly Avdiyevsky] does. He’s infinitely patient. No, no other person would be able to do it. A rehearsal that lasts four hours gives you so much and makes you so much richer spiritually! From time to time he tells us, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving, I’m resigning! You don’t love what you’re doing deep enough, you just go through the motions of singing! At times, I feel being terrorized by him!”
“He’s having such a hard time with us! It takes him so much effort and time to get us do things right. And how happy he is when his perfect ear hears those golden notes we manage to hit. And how desperate he gets when we fail to attain the perfection he seeks. He starts banging his fists on the table! It’s so difficult to retain the level of perfection he wants us to be at all the time.
His is an arduous toil. He looks really sick when he does not get from us what he wants; he is pale, there’s a great sadness in his eyes. He gets so upset, like a little kid. Then he runs his outspread fingers through his mane of unruly hair, and mumbles, ‘No, I won’t leave it like that, I’ll run myself to death and I’ll drive you ever harder till you collapse, but I’ll get it out of you right!’ And seemingly calmed, he signals to start all over again.”