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S & H International Concert Review

Valentin Bibik (In Memoriam) and Leonid Hrabovsky – Ukrainian Masters, Continuum, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, Saturday, March 6, 2004 (BH)


Valentin Bibik (1940-2003)
Little Concerto, Op. 26 (1976) (New York Premiere)
Two Psalms of David, Op. 114 (1996)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 116 (1996) (U.S. Premiere)
Leonid Hrabovsky (b. 1935)
Trio (1964/75)
Hlas II – Obituary, In Memory of Dmitri Shostakovich (1994)
And It Will Be (1993)

Wonjung Kim, soprano
Bo Chang, mezzo-soprano
David Gresham, clarinets
Renée Jolles, violin
Airi Yoshioka, violin
Stephanie Griffin, viola
Kristina Reiko Cooper, cello
Katherine Cherbas, cello
Victor Kioulaphides, double bass
Joel Sachs, piano, conductor
Cheryl Seltzer, piano, keyboard


It was almost worth the entire price of admission to see the excellent, usually poker-faced Renée Jolles playing her violin while simultaneously blowing on a police whistle – just one of the many entertainments in Leonid Hrabovsky’s stunningly original And it Will Be. Commissioned by Continuum as a touring piece, the score asks the musicians to double up: clarinetist David Gresham got a turn on cymbal and was asked to vocalize, and pianist Cheryl Seltzer could sometimes be seen on bongos and a tambourine.

Seltzer was also dealt one of the most striking colors of the evening, using a Casio C100 keyboard that apparently Hrabovsky discovered in a search for a temporary piano substitute. As Joel Sachs revealed in his usual superb notes, the composer "…became thoroughly captivated by the pre-programmed sounds of a device that is hardly more than a sophisticated toy. The result is a major role for this simple instrument, exploring capabilities that its manufacturer is unlikely to have imagined!" It is unlikely that anyone in the audience would have imagined seeing it employed primarily for its unadorned wail, as it was here. The vocal part requires a relatively uninhibited singer, here the outstanding Bo Chang, who made an indelible impression last summer in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Infinito nero and Le Voci sottovetro at the Lincoln Center Festival. And Joel Sachs expertly coordinated all of this, with his usual humor and talent for deftly getting to the bottom of any mysteries in a particular score.

The evening was a tribute to two composers whose output is generally off the radar for most listeners, each from the Ukraine. Bibik died just last year, while the still-living Hrabovsky looked impressively hale in his curtain call. The Bibik works heard here are somewhat slow, quiet and intense, very much in the vein of Gorecki or Pärt, but with episodes of violence that prevent his music from being easily categorised. The ten-minute Little Concerto opens with a fairly naked unison G (if I heard correctly), then unfolds gradually, episodically, before making its way to land on B, a third above, at the work’s conclusion.

In Two Psalms of David, written for the ensemble, Wonjung Kim released a nicely controlled clear tone, her gentle meandering underscoring the almost memorial feeling of the work, as each psalm rises to a climax and gently subsides. And the mostly hushed Second String Quartet uses striking pizzicati and glissandi, often simultaneously, with the string players circling legato, within close intervals of major and minor seconds. This is passionate, emotional music, and the four artists here – Jolles, Yoshioka, Griffin and Cherbas – seemed to have devoted extra rehearsal time which paid off in nuance.

Bibik could not be more different than his contemporary, whose work came after intermission. Hrabovsky’s eclecticism might be put in the same camp as that of Alfred Schnittke: invigorating use of highly contrasting styles, and rapid-fire changes in timbre and color. Unusually cast for violin, piano and double bass, the Trio is a veritable catalogue of extended techniques, including strummed strings inside the piano, naked unison octaves and extensive use of harmonics.

The word Hlas is used in this case to signify "voice," and this was the second of Hrabovsky’s works with that title. Gresham showed eye-opening control in the ghostly attacks that extend into long phrases, punctuated here and there with whirring honks that appeared to be the clarinet equivalent of string double-stops – two notes sounding at once. (Perhaps some circular breathing here?) Plus, Gresham used a simply ravishing-looking black and silver bass clarinet, which was a pleasure to observe all by itself.

And then came And It Will Be, which Continuum has recorded. Since it derives much of its power from the poems by Mykola Vorobyov (translated by Hrabovsky), it seems appropriate to leave the reader with a small sample, such as the first of the eight texts:
The Spirit of Darkness’s crown is beside a stone.
On the stone, there is a bloody script:
"Let X by Y,
and let Z assist him
but let Z want to be X,
then all of them shall perish…"

Bruce Hodges



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