The Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival returned for its third edition this weekend, with a slate of works related to themes of nature and mythology. During an introduction at Merkin Hall, the audience was told that while the event may have become newly relevant in recent weeks, its spirit remained unchanged. (Indeed, it was planned long before the Russian invasion.)
Yet the war loomed over these performances: Some artists couldn’t leave Ukraine, and the concerts were adapted to accommodate their absences. And the festival’s very existence has always been a rejection of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s assertion that there is no real Ukrainian culture.
Our critics were at two of the three programs: “Forest Song” on Friday, and “Anthropocene” on Sunday.
The festival’s first concert was a travelogue through the trees, fields and mountains of Ukraine: an agriculture-rich landscape that has inspired the months of the country’s calendar; been the subject of Hitler’s envy; and suffered under modern disasters like Chernobyl and the recent invasion.
Some of the works were transcription-like tributes. Ivan Nebesnyy’s “Air Music 1” (2001-04), paired the vocal group Ekmeles with four flutes and Sean Statser — the evening’s busiest player, on percussion — for variations of extended technique that rendered entirely human something intangible. The percussion’s lingering final note was a reminder of how indebted music, or any sound, has always been to air.
There was imitation, too, in Zoltan Almashi’s “An Echo From Hitting the Trunk of a Dry Mountain Spruce in Rycerko Gorna Village” (2015), whose prepared piano recalled the tapping of a dead tree. A slowly screeching violin was like a bending branch; the clarinet, a melancholy folk tune performed in its shadow. And Ostap Manulyak’s “Trees,” from 2012, was an arboreal examination from the ground up, with ever-higher pitches airily played by a violin and cello where their strings meet the tailpiece — and, at the top, piano tinkling like birdsong.
The other two pieces were more abstract, and more haunting. Anastasia Belitska’s “Rusalochka” (2019), a purely electronic work of distorted found audio from the Chernobyl zone, recounted a traditional Mermaid’s Easter celebration as warped as the ecosystem there. Alla Zahaykevych’s “Nord/Ouest” (2010) accomplished much of the same, its search of vanishing folklore in northwestern Ukraine documented over 50 discursive minutes whose flashes of folk song — in voice and violin — felt like precious discoveries.
“Nord/Ouest” normally features percussion, voices and live electronics. But, because its creators could not leave Ukraine, it was reworked on Friday for Statser, alone with his drum kit, next to a laptop carrying the sounds of his fellow performers. This spectacle, like the music’s ghostly dispatches from a fading history, spoke for itself. JOSHUA BARONE
Sunday afternoon’s program, too, was disrupted: Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko, the composers who had planned to perform their post-apocalyptic “Chornobyldorf Partita” on the second half of the concert, could not travel to New York. So they sent a 45-minute film, a selection from a seven-hour performance of “Mariupol” that they streamed on March 16 from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, where they are sheltering.
Conceived as a new part of “Chornobyldorf Partita” and named after the city currently under siege, “Mariupol” is written for dulcimer and a microtonally retuned bandura, a lutelike folk instrument. The two men sat facing each other, their instruments nearly touching, the bandura’s strings facing up like the dulcimer’s.
With both instruments struck with drum sticks, the sound evolved from a rustling metallic crunch to a shimmering coppery drone to clattering, astringent industrial noise. This was defiant, ritualistic music — aggressive and forlorn, but with poignant warmth from its creation as a duo.
On the first half of the program, the pianist Steven Beck played Alexey Shmurak’s “Greenland” (2020-21), a reflection on another crisis, that of the planet’s climate. In the Minimalistic first two sections, repeating figures worked through gradual but unexpected transformations, often turning — thawing — from chilly to warmly nocturnal and back again and, in the opening “Railway Étude,” taking on some of the relaxed swing of a rag. By far the longest section of this 45-minute work is the third and final one, “Icy Variations,” which stretches a Bach-style chorale theme to glacial expansiveness, wandering through subtle, organic shifts. ZACHARY WOOLFE