February 14, 2024

Renowned Ukrainian Orchestra Makes Long-Awaited Visit to Princeton

By Nancy Plum

The concert this past weekend by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at McCarter Theatre was long overdue. The Orchestra was scheduled to perform at McCarter a year ago, but the ongoing conflict in that region, combined with travel and economic difficulties, shelved those plans. The Orchestra was finally able to embark on a United States tour this month, and the ensemble brought a rare musical experience to Matthews Theater Sunday afternoon. Led by Volodymyr Sirenko and featuring guest pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky, the Orchestra presented a program steeped in both the Romantic symphonic tradition and Ukrainian musical history.

Founded in 1918, the National Symphony Orchestra has taken on a significant additional role in the past two years as a voice of Ukraine. To open Sunday’s concert, the ensemble presented a gem from the country’s rich musical past. Eighteenth-century composer Maxim Sozontovich Berezovsky spent his career in Russia and Italy and is considered one of the “Golden Three” composers of Ukrainian classical music and a creator of the Ukrainian sacred choral style. A contemporary of Mozart, Berezovsky also died in his early 30s, leaving a repertory of appealing orchestral and choral music. His Symphony No. 1 in C Major, now recognized as the first symphony by a Ukrainian composer, was composed sometime in the early 1770s; with orchestration including light winds, the three-movement symphony parallels Mozart’s expansion of the symphonic genre beyond works for just strings.

Conducting without a baton, Sirenko led the Orchestra in a crisp opening to Berezovsky’s piece, emphasizing a lean sound to music which could have easily fit into the Viennese compositional school. The string sections in particular were lithe and sparkly, with very subtle coloring from single oboe, flute and bassoon, as well as a pair of trumpets. A delicately-played “Andante” middle movement led to a quick closing “Presto” marked by rich thirds between the violin sections and sweeping melodic lines within a martial instrumental palette.

Although committed to the 19th-century Romantic style, Camille Saint-Saëns was a champion of the progressive music of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Composed in a mere 17 days, his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor was more like a three-movement symphony than the traditional concerto. Beginning with a solo cadenza, the opening “Andante Sostenuto” especially reflected the technical requirements of Liszt. Saint-Saëns premiered this concerto with himself as piano soloist in 1868, later claiming that a tight rehearsal schedule did not allow him time to practice the virtuosity of what he had written.

This concerto was indeed fiendish in its solo piano writing, but Ukrainian-born Vynnytsky seemingly had no trouble with piano lines which became increasingly more virtuosic as the piece went on. Opening the work with dark arpeggios, Vynnytsky took his time on both the impressionistic cadenza and principal theme of the first movement, against an understated orchestral accompaniment. Conductor Sirenko built tension slowly under the cascading solo piano lines, and Vynnytsky held the audience spellbound in extended passages of technical difficulty. The second movement “Allegro scherzando” conjured a spring frolic on the Seine, as Sirenko kept orchestral rhythms exact against fast-moving piano filigree. The third movement showed the true virtuosity of the work, and Vynnytsky’s fiery piano solo was well matched by furious strings. Sirenko wisely let Vynnytsky lead the way through the music, and the piano soloist never showed a rhythmic mishap or misstep in tempo while performing with phenomenal facility, including continuous and exacting trills from both hands in all registers.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine closed Sunday’s concert with a work by a composer with one foot in both the Eastern European and American musical traditions. Antonín Dvorák often drew from the folk tradition of his native Bohemia for his music, as well as years spent in the United States. His 1889 Symphony No. 8 in G Major was a celebratory piece composed on the occasion of Dvorák’s election to the Bohemian Academy of Science, Literature and Arts.

In Sunday’s performance, a dark melody opened the four-movement work, made all the more shadowy by the placement of winds and brass at the back of the stage. The rich orchestral texture of the first movement was contrasted by graceful bird calls from flute and piccolo, as the movement took off to display an open and fresh instrumental feel. Flutist Kateryna Yurchenko played a number of chipper and spirited lines throughout the symphony, often joined by oboist Hennadii Kot and clarinetist Yurii Nabytovych. Sirenko often took time at phrase cadences and brought out dynamic contrasts adding elegance and enabling the music to turn from dark to light in an instant. In the closing “Allegro,” a sweet sectional cello melody led to a martial close as the Orchestra drove the music to a fast finish.

Sunday afternoon’s concert was a culmination of musical and community efforts to bring the unique performance style of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine to Princeton. The Orchestra well proved its place on the international stage, as well as its vision of courage and determination during a time of war.