February 9, 2018

“Steppe Sounds” with Julian Kytasty in concert at Berklee College of Music

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Ihor Slabicky

Julian Kytasty at Berklee College of Music on January 26.

BOSTON – “Steppe Sounds” were heard in Boston on Friday, January 26, during a concert at the Berklee College of Music featuring Julian Kytasty and Matt Scutchfield. The event was organized by Olga Gerasymiv.

Mr. Kytasty is the well-known bandurist, ethnomusicologist and composer. As one of the world’s premier players of the bandura, and the instrument’s leading North American exponent, he has performed throughout the Americas, Europe and Central Asia. While doing so, he has redefined the possibilities of the bandura.

He is the musical director of New York Bandura and founder of Bandura Downtown, an innovative music series based in New York’s East Village that provides a home for creative explorations of traditional and contemporary sounds and themes. He has collaborated extensively with Virlana Tkacz and appeared in a number of Yara Arts Group productions. He has recorded and performed as a soloist, with the Canadian world music group Paris to Kyiv, and with musical innovators such as John Zorn and Derek Bailey, as well as cross-culturally with such artists as Wu Man, Klezmer revivalist Michael Alpert and Mongolian master musician Battuvshin.

Mr. Scutchfield plays on over 20 instruments and in many genres. A Berklee alumnus who is steeped in traditional fiddle music and bluegrass, he is working on post-modern and new complexity compositions. With his “Tuneology,” he explores different fiddle tunes from different regions.

Mr. Scutchfield opened the evening with two fiddle medleys. The first featured a Serbo-Croatian tune that is very similar to one heard in Missouri and South Carolina, as well as “Breaking Up Christmas” and “I Have Money in Both My Pockets.” The second included the Irish reel “Paddy on the Turnpike,” “Tashka” by Peter Ostroushko, and “The Barack Obama Reel.”

In a brief discourse, he pointed out the similarities between Ukrainian fiddle tunes and those from Appalachia, the British Isles and other regions. He then played “Kozachok” by Mr. Ostroushko, “Ragged Ass Bill” and “President George W. Bush’s Hornpipe” also by Mr. Ostroushko.

He finished with “Floppy Eared Mule” and “Devil in the Straw Stack,” a tune from North Carolina. As he later explained, the melody for “Floppy Eared Mule” is very similar to the “Dovbush Kozak” recorded by the Ukrainska Selska Orchestra in 1930. His playing was marvelous, and the adaption of his playing style to reflect that of the tune and its region made for a remarkable performance.

Mr. Kytasty set the tone of the wide open steppe with “Homin Stepiv” (“Echo of the Steppes”). Riding one’s stallion across the steppe, the wind, the horse galloping freely – these were all delightfully presented in his rendition of this famous composition by Hryhoriy Kytasty.

He next played the 17th century “Duma pro Fedora Bezridnoho.” Here, a fatally wounded Kozak enumerates his prized possessions, giving them to his aide, in return asking that Kozaks bury him in a mound in the steppe. His instrumental composition “Travel Music,” taken from the Yara Arts Group piece “Captain John Smith Goes to Ukraine,” followed. (Yes, that Captain John Smith spent time in Ukraine before he came to Virginia.)

Accompanying himself with an airy instrumental, Mr. Kytasty spoke “I Nebo Nevmyte (The Sky’s Unwashed)”, a Taras Shevchenko poem translated by Ms. Tkacz and Wanda Phipps. Turning to religious sounds of the steppe, he played “Oi Koly b zhe Ya Sviy Konets Vika Znav (pro Arkhanhela Havryyila).” Played to his own arrangement, this religious and moralistic work tells of the sinner who, if he knew when he would die, would have prepared himself for the final judgment by performing good deeds and acts of generosity.

Returning to a jovial mood, Mr. Kytasty played “Oy Poyikhav Savradym u Pole Oraty” in which the wife, who enjoyed partying while her husband labored, begins to celebrate with drink and music before her husband Savradym has even had his funeral. Keeping with that ambience, he played two of the first pieces he learned on bandura, including a nimble “Kozachok” dance melody so light and airy under his deft fingers.

Mr. Kytasty was then joined by Mr. Scutchfield on fiddle. The two played an “Improvisation” that started out as a free association, jelled into what sounded like a folk melody, and just as readily dissolved into individual notes. Hearing them develop this work together was simply magical.

Returning to a solo setting, Mr. Kytasty played “Nema v Sviti Pravdy” (“Of Truth and Falsehood”), a traditional kobzar piece about Truth being pushed out and Falsehood taking its place. Who knew this 17th century song could have such relevance in this age of “fake news?”

The evening ended with a video by Waldemart Klyuzko. Utilizing images by Evgeniy Maloletka from the war in eastern Ukraine, he created odd juxtapositions: a farm field that resolved to show the artillery emplacement in the foreground; a soldier sitting at the battery reading a book, while shells shone brightly in their open wooden boxes, ready to be fired on command. In another segment, a city scene resolves to show citizens crossing a river on wooden planks laid across a bombed out bridge.

Mr. Kytasty accompanied the video with an optimistic and gentle
instrumental piece, one that was reminiscent of the compositions on
his recent “Nochi v Banduristani (Nights in Banduristan)” album, that
countered these images.

When the video finished, Mr. Kytasty went off stage; he returned with Mr. Scutchfield to a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.

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