The history of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus can be traced directly to the 12th Archeological Congress in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1902. Hnat Khotkevych, a prominent writer, ethnographer, and composer, first presented the question of forming a professional orchestra of bandurists here. He provided stimulus for a renewed interest and remarkable growth in the bandura’s popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, and amateur bandura ensembles rapidly formed throughout the country.
The first professional bandurist chorus was formed in Kyiv in 1918 during the height of the country’s brief period of independence. Under the direction of bandura virtuoso Vasyl Yemetz, the first chorus initially had 15 members. Another such chorus, in Poltava, Ukraine, was formed in 1925 under the direction of Volodymyr Kabachok.
The mid-1920s were marked by a period of resurgence of Ukrainian arts and culture, and the Chorus developed into a professional touring troupe. As the Chorus membership, expertise, and repertoire were continually refined and enhanced, the bandura was transformed from a folk to a classical concert form.
The Chorus’ history rapidly evolved into a turbulent one. The ideals of the bandurist – God, truth, freedom, and human dignity heralded through song – were a threat to the then-newly formed Soviet Union. Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, artists and intellectuals were arrested, exiled or executed in an attempt to eradicate every remnant of Ukrainian culture.
Hnat Khotkevych was executed in 1938 in Kharkiv and his compositions were banned throughout the Soviet Union. Many conductors, chorus members, and blind bandurists-minstrels were also accused of enticing the populace to nationalism and were executed. In 1935 the remaining members were forced to reorganize into the State Bandurist Chorus of the Ukrainian SSR.
In the years that followed the Chorus was exploited and persecuted by both the Soviets and the Nazis. It was not until 1949 that through the assistance of allied forces many of the Chorus’ members emigrated from refugee camps to the United States where many established a home base in Detroit, Michigan.
Freedom was a great blessing but not without its difficulties. Most of the members, in order to support their families, had to learn new skills that were often unrelated to their musical ability and experience. Approximately 90 percent joined Detroit’s automotive industry labor force. This, however, did not prevent the bandurists from launching a series of concerts in their newly adopted homeland. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus was reborn.
Notwithstanding these difficulties in a new land, the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus took part in concert tours throughout North America. In 1958 the Chorus embarked on a triumphant concert tour throughout Western Europe. The ensemble performed in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, all while garnering critical acclaim in leading newspapers. Upon its return, the Chorus continued its mission of sharing the beauty of the bandura with North American audiences.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the ensemble released many more recordings, continued giving concerts, and toured Australia in 1980. The late 1970’s and 1980’s also saw the educational involvement of the Chorus grow as it began sponsoring bandura seminars and summer music camps.
Hryhory Kytasty, (1907-1984), long-standing conductor of the Chorus was a driving force in re-instilling Ukrainian choral and bandura art in North America. Considered a legend in his own time, this composer, conductor, performer, and teacher was a role model and inspiration to young bandurists. He continued the legacy of the bandurist (also known as akobzar) and furthered the art of the bandura in the free world.
Today, the majority of Chorus members are 2nd and 3rd generation Americans and Canadians. Fortified by a whole new generation of young musicians, the Chorus has captivated audiences in major concert halls in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Ukraine for more than 50 years. The Chorus has performed for such noted personalities as former President Richard Nixon, former President Ronald Reagan, movie star Jack Palance, and former President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk.
In June 1991, under the directorship of Wolodymyr Kolesnyk, the Chorus completed a historically triumphant 14-city tour throughout major cities of Ukraine. The performances, which encompassed traditional ballads and instrumentals, were received with great enthusiasm and rave reviews, especially in areas of Ukraine where national consciousness had been most dormant.
As a tribute to its role in preserving and perpetuating the legacy of Ukrainian music, the Chorus was selected by Ukraine’s Council of Ministers as the recipient of the Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian State Prize, the highest award that can be bestowed for excellence in the contribution to the arts. The Chorus returned to Ukraine again in 1994, touring the russified regions of southern Ukraine and Crimea.
Under Artistic Director and Conductor Oleh Mahlay, the UBC celebrated its 50th Anniversary in North America in 1999. In the spring of 2001, the UBC presented a series of Sacred Music Concerts to various communities in North America. Returning to Ukraine for a third visit in August of 2001, the Chorus had the distinct honor of representing the United States in Kyiv during Ukraine’s 10th Anniversary of Independence Celebration. Performances were presented in various venues around Kyiv, including the Concert Palace of Ukraine and the U.S. Ambassadors residence.
After a 45 year hiatus, the UBC returned to Western Europe in 2003 with a series of concerts in England, France, Germany, and Austria. One of the many highlights of the tour was a Recital in the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In 2004, the UBC participated in the Stratford Summer Music Festival, shared the stage with Paul Plishka of the Metropolitan Opera in the production ofBandura Christmas International, and toured Western Canada in November of 2005. The UBC brought the “Bandura – The Soul of Ukraine” tour to the eastern United States and Canada in October of 2007. The 10 day, nine city tour included performances at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit and Baldwin Wallace-College in Berea, Ohio.
From 2008 – 2009, the UBC worked under the directorship of Adrian Bryttan. Over the course of his term as Artistic Director and Conductor, Mr. Bryttan introduced innovative compositions to the extensive repertoire of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus.
In 2010, Maestro Bohdan Heryavenko was elected the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. In his two years with the UBC, Maestro Heryavenko led the ensemble in a return performance at the internationally-renowned Stratford Summer Music Festival; conducted the very successful Western Canadian Concert Series of 2011; directed the UBC for the 50th Anniversary Concert of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy in Chicago attended by his Beatitude Sviatoslav; and conducted the benefit concert for the Ukrainian Language Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh in October of 2011.
On August 1, 2012, Oleh Mahlay returned to the Ukrainain Bandurist Chorus as Artistic Director and Conductor.