MIDDLETOWN, Conn. – On Sunday, November 19, 2017, the Wesleyan Concert Choir under the direction of Nadya Potemkina performed a choral setting of Vasyl Stus’s poem “Na Lysiy Hori” (On Bald Mountain) as part of its fall concert program. The poem was set to music by local Ukrainian American composer Alexander Kuzma, who arranged the piece for mixed choir and tenor soloists.
The choir of 47 singers learned the piece in its original Ukrainian and performed it at Crowell Concert Hall on November 19, 2017. Earlier that fall, “Na Lysiy Hori” was premiered at Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church in Boston by the Yevshan Ukrainian Vocal Ensemble, but this was the first time it was performed by a non-Ukrainian ensemble in Connecticut. The song was introduced to the Wesleyan choir by Katja Kolcio, professor of dance and environmental studies at Wesleyan.
Prior to the performance, the composer was invited to the stage to give a short introduction providing the historical context of the Stus poem. Mr. Kuzma explained that Vasyl Stus was a Ukrainian political prisoner whose poetry was smuggled out of the notorious Perm 36 prison camp in Siberia – one of the most notorious and harshest prisons in the Soviet Gulag. The poem was written in the final years of his life, as Stus reflected on his decision to risk his freedom in an act of defiance against the Soviet State and in defense of human rights.
Stus died in 1985 at the age of 47, just six years before Ukraine achieved independence and the Soviet regime collapsed. A few years ago, Donetsk State University was named in Stus’s honor, but since the Russian invasion, the university was stripped of its title. Nevertheless Stus remains a revered figure among Ukrainians, both as a brilliant poet and as a martyred champion of human rights, Mr. Kuzma noted.
In translation the poem reads:
On a bald mountain
The embers of the night are burning down
And the leaves of fall are dying to ashes.
But I’ve forgotten where that bald mountain might be,
And I don’t even know if that bald mountain
Would recognize me.
I don’t know. Don’t know. Don’t know.
O hour of dusk, hour of thin-throated partings.
And still I remember the scent of your worried hands,
And your lips, acrid, almost saline.
And this squandered age flies off on the wings
Of a ragged, startled bird,
And with a dull, hollow sound,
Like the thrum of blood rushing through aorta,
You can hear the strident howl of nightingales.