Timothy Hoft and Virko Baley: pre-concert talk on Ukrainian contemporary piano music

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Virko Baley, a famous Ukrainian-American composer, and Timothy Hoft, a remarkable American pianist, are presenting the concert that’s going to take place at the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore devoted to piano music by Ukrainian composers. As Ukraine has a rather strong musical tradition, they explore that program by talking about each piece, and Timothy Hoft illustrates the beginnings of it. 

We hope you will also find it interesting and intriguing as well, so we prepared some of their informal talks to read through.

Virko Baley: I can say with absolute security that I don’t know any American pianist or any Canadian pianist that has learned as much Ukrainian repertoire as he has, he’s crazy.

Timothy: I wanted to make a recital of living composers because I’ve played many concerts before, as you know, of Ukrainian music including Liatoshynskyi, Kalachevskyi and Kosenko, composers of the past. Since Ukraine is going through a difficult time right now, I thought the best way of supporting is to actually support musicians who are alive. That was my first idea, and this is the second, to find some music that Virko had given me several years ago that I had an interest in but just never got around to. 

“Cascades” (2009) by Alla Zahaikevych

Timothy: There are a lot of gestures. It is a great title for the piece, it reminds me of waves and winds and nature effects. It’s the kind of sound you sometimes hear in Messiaen, a sort of imitation of natural sounds. I think it’s quite enchanting, this piece has a lot of virtuosity.

“Rythmos” (2000) by Liubava Sydorenko

Timothy: This has a more lyrical approach, although the second piece of this cycle is rather rhythmic, like Stravinsky. 

“Stück” (2004), “Kurz” (2015) by Bohdana Frolyak

Timothy: I kind of feel like they go together in a way, they both have the same kind of rhythmic drive, the same kind of language. The first one is a little bit more like Stravinsky I’d say, the second one is a bit more like Messiaen. It’s very dissonant, very aggressive music. It can be a real pain to play. 

Virko: I know she’s married to a very good pianist, so maybe she decided to take vengeance on him and made it as clumsy as possible.

“For Elissa” (1988) by Leonid Hrabovskyi

Virko: He is the oldest composer (born 1935) on the program, while most of the composers were born in the 70s or 60s.

Timothy: I recorded his “Five character pieces” and so he came here and helped me with those. He told me a bit about this piece, that it was written for a pianist with extremely small hands.

Virko: That was my ex-wife, Elissa Stutz. With very small hands but a tremendous amount of musicality. What we did was this was the time when we started being able to work with composers from Ukraine; this was in the late 80s. We commissioned him because she was doing an American hall recital in New York and wanted a world premiere.

Timothy: it’s very contrapunctal, it’s a very slow kind of hauntingly beautiful. As you can imagine it is incredibly annoying to learn at the beginning, but after working on it for just about 30 minutes or so the logic is undeniable. 

Virko: I think the piece is a mature piece for him. He’s written lots of music, but not much piano music, except the cycle of three very long pieces called “Homoeomorphies.

Timothy: I find that his music, although it may not be completely understandable for the first listening, feels very strong nevertheless, and one can get that impression from a lot of great composers. Like Pierre Boulez, for example, where you kind of you get the sense that there’s a very logical and structured, intelligent approach to the piece and that it will reveal itself to you eventually if you give it time.

“Three Repressed Desires” (2001-2003) by Oleh Bezborodko

Timothy: I was a little confused about the title at first, but actually working through it actually does make perfect sense; the first piece has some sort of internal nervous energy. 

“Shadows and ghosts” (1999) by Liudmyla Yurina

Timothy: She wrote me an email and said, “It was written in Germany. I was wandering in the space of a dark and a half-empty house with lantern experiments with different gradations of darkness and shadows inspired me to create a piece in which sounds would reproduce the atmosphere of gloom and mystery”. 

I wanted to play this one because it’s the only piece on the program that has some extended techniques like muting of the strings inside the piano.

“Kharkiv Music” (1981/89) by Oleksandr Schetynskyi

Timothy: After the audience has been thoroughly terrified of “Shadows and Ghosts” I decided to end the program with something much nicer sounding. It’s very unlike his other pieces which are very dissonant, this one is extremely diatonic and very modal, and Oleksandr told me in an email that there are a lot of medieval qualities. The piece is in four movements; it’s named after the city Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. 

Although it wasn’t really my intention to make this program a political statement, this was, as with every time I’ve played Ukrainian music in the past it’s more just been of musical exploration for me. I thought now it might be appropriate to put in a piece named “Kharkiv Music” in memory, and in solidarity with the city, which has just been destroyed by the russians.

In an email exchange, the composer told me that he wrote it in the 1980s, and it was meant to be a kind of protest against the Soviet Union because of the horrific living conditions at that time. 

Now it’s meant to be a tribute to those suffering in eastern Ukraine right now. But I also thought that the piece would end the program nicely because it’s it would feel like such a sigh of relief after all the dissonant and aggressive pieces that I played before. 


Timothy: I wanted to create a program that had as much variety as possible, not just for the listening experience but also to show that there is a great deal of variety which there within Ukrainian music you can’t point it down to a single style even the two most famous composers Stankovych and Sylvestrov. Their styles are wildly different from each other. So I’m hoping that this will spark some interest in some young minds and that they will hear this program and be inspired to explore the music of their own generation.

Read also:

• Statement from the musicological community of Ukraine

• Violinist Anastasia Poludenna: “Until we undergo treatment, we are allergic to Russian culture”

Recital Tour by Myroslava Khomik to help Ukrainian musicians


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