Kyiv Chamber Choir

At Ryerson United Church on Sunday, November 5

Ukraine’s Kyiv Chamber Choir—21 terrific singers and their conductor, Mykola Hobdych—has been travelling across the country. On the afternoon of November 5, it made the sixth stop of its Canadian tour at Ryerson United Church. The ensemble was well warmed up, having sung the divine liturgy that morning at a local Ukrainian Orthodox church. I wasn’t there, being neither Ukrainian nor Orthodox, but I can only imagine, based on what I heard later on, that the congregation must have felt more keenly than usual a kinship with the divine. This is an ensemble of rare quality, a purveyor of music at its transcendent best.

The choir sings with great precision, and pumps out powerful organlike tones, meaty and mighty: full-bodied, forward, almost operatic. Atypically, the higher voices don’t predominate. It’s the altos and basses who rule, the latter especially. There are six of them (the other sections get five apiece) and when they settle into those resonant low pedal notes—think Red Army Chorus or Ivan Rebroff—the room vibrates. They make a sound that’s unmistakably from that part of the world, according to Willi Zwozdesky, the long-time conductor of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus and an expert witness I spoke to at intermission.

The first half of the program was devoted to sacred music, the second to artful arrangements of folk tunes, one blending into another with shifting ensembles, instrumental bridges, and dance. It was gorgeous, but owing to a delayed start and an intermission that seemed to go on forever, I wasn’t able to hear the whole thing out; too bad for me, because there was so much that was commendable. Apart from the remarkable abilities of the singers, the composers—such names as Petro Turchaninov, Mykola Dyletsky, and Valentyn Sylvestrov—are not likely to appear on local programs again anytime soon. On the one hand, more’s the pity; on the other, it’s good to know that the wobbly world still holds surprises. The Kyiv Chamber Choir should come back soon and unpack some more.