The 75th Anniversary of the Babyn Yar Tragedy to Be Commemorated with a Concert at the Opera

The program includes: the “Kaddish-Requiem” by Yevhen Stankovych, based on the poems of Dmytro Pavlychko; “A German Requiem” by Brahms; and “Kol Nidrei” by Max Bruch. The opera singer and concert producer Pavlo Hunka is in the studio to talk about it in detail.

This program of “Encounters” will be dedicated to the events that are being planned to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre that will take place in September 2016. Pavlo Hunka, the international opera singer and producer of the concert, is participating in these events.


Iryna Slavinska: Of course, we will start with asking you about the concert. When will it take place? Where? And perhaps there is already information about the artists and the program? Who will we be able to listen to there?

Pavlo Hunka: Indeed. This concert is the final event of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar. However, various events will be held in Kyiv throughout the entire week, starting from September 22nd. These events all lead to that one day on September 29, which is held in Babyn Yar. We decided to present a special memorial concert in a theatre here, at the National Opera House, in order to conclude these events with a certain mood. Performers from all around the world—musicians, orchestra, singers, conductors, and directors—will be arriving here, and Ukrainians from Kyiv will also be involved.

Iryna Slavinska: What will we hear? I imagine the genre would be something akin to a requiem…

Pavlo Hunka: Yes, but it is very interesting that we chose the prayer as the initial piece. This will be the prayer that always takes place before the New Year, the Jewish New Year—“Kol Nidrei” by Max Bruch. Our cellist is coming from Canada. Roman Borys is of Ukrainian origin and he is a wonderful instrumentalist. Then we go right away into the “Kaddish-Requiem” by Yevhen Stankovych. After the intermission we will have “A German Requiem” by Brahms.

We chose those two requiems not because they are requiems. I think even Yevhen Stankovych’s requiem, even though it is called the “Kaddish-Requiem ” is not really a requiem. It is a history of events, a poem by Dmytro Pavlychko. And Pavlychko expresses hope at the end.

After the break, as I said before, you will hear Brahms, which is also not really a requiem because this is spiritual music. Johannes Brahms intentionally did not include any words about Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion. That is why I chose these two works. They express hope first of all.

Iryna Slavinska: In addition, they are quite universal, right? If we speak of the religious…

Pavlo Hunka: That is correct. Well, religious is not the right word. They are more spiritual. We can say that Mozart is religious, but Brahms went in a completely different direction. You know, it is called “A German Requiem,” but only because it is sung in the German language. Besides, it is not a requiem at all. It is an opportunity to listen to embrace peace, and hope, and so people can learn something from life. Then we can look into the future with optimism.

Iryna Slavinska: Brahms is German-language music from the German cultural sphere. Germany is a country that took part directly in the Second World War, and which has in its history the example of being executioners in the history of the Holocaust. Babyn Yar is an episode of the Holocaust, and I would like to talk about this. Perhaps playing German music on a date that is dedicated to one of the episodes of the Holocaust is not the easiest decision. Perhaps there is some message here.

Pavlo Hunka: Let me tell you that we chose this work because it is a spiritual work. It is only a coincidence that it is in the German language. I would not like people to think that because it is sung in German we are attempting to clear our conscience. You know, it is most appropriate for me to say that today we all want to unite. To choose a German piece…I do not think there is any other work that has so much strength.

Of course, I also understand that these events did happen during the Second World War. On the other hand, I need to mention why I accepted the offer to become the producer of this concert. I accepted because every country in the history of the world, every cultured country, has some moments in its history that would better be forgotten. England—and I am British—England started this history in Africa, when they took all the black people to America. The Germans have something else. The French have something. The fact that Ukraine accepts that something not pleasant occurred on its soil illustrates that Ukraine wants to develop and wants to become a member of, so to speak, the cultured world. It is very powerful that you are ready to accept that this happened. We commemorate this moment because we do not want it to happen again. That is why I am very happy that we have international celebrities: instrumentalists, singers, conductors, and so on.

Iryna Slavinska: Was it hard to gather such a large and authoritative international team in the orchestra, and among the performers? Additionally, was it hard to gather them in Kyiv? Kyiv is not the capital of classical music.

Pavlo Hunka: Kyiv is developing. Twenty-five years of independence is very little time. Great Britain has more than one thousand years. But many things have already happened here. It was not difficult to gather people. We could have asked some Ukrainian performers, but I thought this should be an international event so that the entire world would listen. Because I am an opera singer who has been singing for 27 years, I have access to most of the conductors, directors, orchestras, and choirs of the world. I work with them. We asked them, and they responded with great interest to join together with us here.

They came from all over the world. There are Chinese, Japanese, Americans, and so on. We wanted to gather them together and to commemorate this event with Ukrainians so that they would later return to their countries and inform other people about it. It was not hard, to tell you the truth, and I think this is a very good step for Ukrainians that international performers want to come and to commemorate this event with you.

Iryna Slavinska: Is the genre of the concert, a classical music concert, typical for the commemoration of such tragic historic events like the Babyn Yar massacre?

Pavlo Hunka: Shostakovich also wrote his Symphony No. 13 dedicated to Babyn Yar. There are different works. I tried to choose a program that would not only talk about this event or accuse somebody. I wanted to show that there is a moment when we can foster hope, and think ahead.

It is obvious that there are such holocausts all around the world. Not only here. We know that it’s rare that people learn from history, but we want to foster hope step by step, so that things will change. I could have chosen other works. I was also thinking about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because it is a song of freedom, and it is a very interesting story. But we changed our mind, and also many people advised us to do so. We think that Brahms is a bit softer, and that this work is more meditative.

You know, it is also very important that young people will be there.

Iryna Slavinska: Do you mean they will be among the singers or in the audience?

Pavlo Hunka: Among the singers and also in the audience. Two hundred fifty students from all over the world are coming, and during the week they will attend different symposiums where they will discuss this event. Professors will be there, and a book will be published, and various specialists have written their parts in that book. Different events are being organized in Kyiv before this commemoration. In the cinemas for instance. One very important thing, and people probably know, is that Babyn Yar itself is quite neglected…

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, we talked about it. There already was a program about the competition to create a memorial park at Babyn Yar. In the very nearest future, I can now announce this to listeners, we will talk about the results of this competition. We will talk about the projects selected and analyze how the architects and urbanists are thinking about the organization of this territory.

I would like to talk more about some topics that are not directly connected to the concert, but related to music and memory, for instance. If we talk about the music, about the classical repertoire, about new classics and memory—what else can we say? Are there many texts or musical works that relate to this topic?

Pavlo Hunka: Not that much. I know Shostakovich wrote one, and some Ukrainian composer. I forgot his name, but it will come. So he also wrote a piece about Babyn Yar. But Stankovych wrote the primary one. He wrote this work, and it tells about the event and its circumstances. We believe that we should never forget these people and we all can do something so that such an event never repeats itself. But it is a very big and difficult topic.

Besides those composers, not that much was written. Just now in the hotel I talked with one woman, and she said that in America there is very little interest towards this event. This is not that important however. The important thing is that we very resolutely say that yes, it happened, but we will work so it is never repeated, and we will gradually grow culturally, and will become better people. We are those people, but we should always search for ways so that it never happens again…we need people to understand each other.

Iryna Slavinska: How much of a good instrument is music for this type of message? I mean the messages to become more cultural, and about the proud posture, even though this pride is for the memory of tragic events that happened in our country.

Pavlo Hunka: These works are very powerful, but we decided to do something more than just a concert. For me the fact that recently a new genre of concert appeared is very important. I would say this is a dramatic concert, not an opera, and not a concert, but something in-between. What does this mean? We asked the choir to perform these works—Brahms and Stankovych This is the national choir “Dumka.” We asked them to memorize these two works, and this is difficult because this is not the norm. But there is a new genre in the world, and we contacted the stage director Annechien Koerselman from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. I know that she worked in Berlin last year. She implemented simple gestures, simple thoughts that catch the audience right from the beginning. The audience is not only listening during this concert; the audience has to work with and be present with the performers.

Iryna Slavinska: So the choir is probably also not just standing and singing? What is the choir doing in such situation?

Pavlo Hunka: The orchestra is sitting, and behind it there are specific gestures by the choir—small, small gestures as they face the audience, and they also accent some moments with their hands. They move and, you know, this is not easy for an academic choir.

Iryna Slavinska: How does this influence the performance? I imagine that an academic choir is quite static…

Pavlo Hunka: Yes, of course. At the beginning it was hard for them to accept this, but then, when Annechien started to work with them, they understood immediately…you know, when you present a concert or opera, there appears a wall—the fourth wall, as we call it in our world.

Iryna Slavinska: Between the audience and performers.

Pavlo Hunka: Yes. We are singing, and you are listening. For me this is very inconvenient. For example, in my own solo concert. On June 5th I had a concert here in the Philharmonic. People saw I was an opera singer, and I was not a person who stands in front of the piano and sings. I am drama: every song is drama; every work is drama. I think that singers should memorize the work first of all so that they do not have the books in-between, as walls. So they would be able to open up their souls differently. The effect of all of this is very unique. We felt this when we had the first rehearsal on June 3rd. After the first two minutes we felt goose bumps and we felt that something new was opening for us.

Luckily I worked with Annechien before, and we had the same feeling. My wife was in the audience, and she said: “You are singing for thirty years already, but this concert is one out of five concerts that are impossible to forget.” We saw that we need to show something unique so that people really feel this hope and optimism. They had to feel it through the music and text, but also through your soul opening up. People did not even know how to react at first. However, step by step they pick up this style and mood. I think it will be a very unique moment here in the opera theatre, and I hope a lot of people will see it and accept this new genre.

Iryna Slavinska: This is very interesting. The new genre of concert, the drama concert you were talking about…I can assume that this is not only about the personal performance. Perhaps the repertoire also provides some drama to it?

Pavlo Hunka: The works themselves are very powerful. From the singing point of view, if the singer is singing about joy, it is very important that we do not only hear this word, but also feel this word. I gave the example to “Dumka.” I was at their concert when they were singing “A German Requiem.” I was specifically excused from the rehearsal because I wanted to listen to them. They were singing very nicely, of course. They were singing the word “joy” and there was only one baritone, one singer out of sixty of them, who was smiling. You know, I was trying to understand how can you sing about joy with such faces…To me it seemed that they did not feel that word to the fullest. Obviously, they understand what they are singing about, but the artist should have contact with his soul at the moment when he is saying this word. Then, when the soul is opening up, the audience will feel something. They do not know why, but they are thrilled.

Iryna Slavinska: What is the proper reaction by the audience? This will be the question with which we will be finishing our talk. If such a big accent is made on the dramatism of the performance and the empathy of the choir performers who will be singing these complicated works during such a complicated concert dedicated to such a complicated date, then how should the audience react? Should there be tears, some catharsis?

Pavlo Hunka: I think a meditative effect should be created. I think the audience should smile. They do not come to some memorial service; they are attending an event that tells them we accept those things that happened and we hope they will never be repeated. The audience should come out of the event with a cleansed soul, and for me it would be very important that they are not sad afterwards. That is why I created the concert this way. Also Annechien, and your excellent Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, who is originally from Halychyna [Galicia—Ed.] but is working now at the Bavarian opera, were trying to create such a mood. Oksana also understands that we cannot leave the nation sad. They should go out and say: “Yes, I am ready for the next day. We will not forget, but we are moving forward.” They should also not be too joyful, as a smile without reflection on events past does not provide anything. I am trying to rehearse every performance in a way that everyone is working with optimism. This is very, very important.

Iryna Slavinska: To move forward—this is indeed a very important message. It illustrates something we talked about before: the hope that will be heard through the works that are performed during the concert to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre. And on this note we conclude our talk on the program “Encounters” with the international opera star Pavlo Hunka, the producer of the commemorative concert. This concert will take place on 29 September 2016 in the National Opera House in Kyiv. You have been listening to the program “Encounters” on Hromadske Radio, which is produced with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. This has been Iryna Slavinska. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared (Ukrainian podcast) here.

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger