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Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton Tours Eastern Europe!

July 11-29, 2014

The Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton, under the direction of Orest Soltykevych, recently returned from a successful tour of Latvia, Poland and Vienna.  The tour began in Riga, Latvia where we competed in three categories in the World Choir Games which are held every two years and are the largest choral event in the world.  This year there were over 27,000 choristers from 500 choirs representing more than 60 countries.

We had a very busy eight days there as we constantly on the move between qualifications, rehearsals, competitions, an open air concert and rehearsals for the massed choir for the closing ceremonies.  Competing in the three categories of Male Chamber Choir, Sacred Music a Capella and Folklore, we were pleased to receive silver in all three categories.  The competition highlight was singing our sacred music in an old stone church that had a reverberation of almost four seconds!  Truly a moving experience!  We were also fortunate to have been selected to sing in the massed choir of 900 for the closing ceremonies.  The concert was all pop music and according to the conductors, because of our strong Slavic voices, we were placed in the front row of the choir in the 13,000 seat Arena Riga.  The concert rocked on for over an hour and the crowd was often on their feet, especially during the ABBA medley that included Mama Mia, Dancing Queen and other favourites.  We were accompanied by the Latvian State Orchestra and on national television; it was a super experience and a huge rush of adrenalin!  The closing ceremonies can be seen here.  We had an absolute wonderful time singing and were a bunch of kids again.

Riga is a beautiful city full of sidewalk cafes and restaurants and has been called “the Paris of the North”.  It was established in 1201 as a trading centre, being occupied by various states before turning its back on its oppressors in 1991 and is fiercely independent.  It has a Museum of Occupation that tells the story of Latvia’s oppression through the centuries; what was interesting was that you could substitute Ukraine for Latvia in most of the exhibits as the story of occupation is almost identical for the two countries.  Riga has the largest collection of art-nouveau buildings in the world and has been declared a World Heritage Site.  Being a bit off the beaten tourist path, it still gets its share of visitors and is well worth the trip.  The old city is a maze of cobblestoned pedestrian streets with many surprises.  It also has a wonderful series of parks and canals winding through the old city.  The people were very friendly and welcoming and it was truly a delight to visit.  The transit system of trams and buses is very easy to use although we ended up walking a lot and the “short Riga walk” is not one we nor our tired feet will soon forget!  Riga is only half an hour from the Baltic so we did have a few hours one afternoon to visit Jarmala, a well established resort town on a 33 kilometer stretch of beach.  The water was cold!

Our intention had been to tour western Ukraine after Riga but given the troubles there, we toured two communities in Poland that had large Ukrainian populations.  There was a lot of forced resettlement between residents of Poland and Ukraine during and after WWII so we decided to visit Poland, our first stop being Olsztyn in northern Poland.  We were very warmly received by the community there and performed in a Ukrainian Catholic church and then hosted by the parish.  The parish priest had served in Hamilton for five years so was very familiar with Canada and thrilled to have us as that area very seldom gets visiting performing groups.

The next day we stopped in the small village of Prusinowo (Gm. Debrzno) to sing a memorial service at the grave of the brother of one of our members.  It was a very special time for us, moving and also heart warming as we met the family of our choir member who has been in Canada for 25 years but returns to his home village as often as he can.

The roads in northern Poland are often very winding so we had a scenic and sometimes slow tour but it enabled us to have a close look at the many stork nests.  This was particularly poignant for us as one of our songs, Журавлі (Zhuravli), is a 14 year old boy’s story of the storks returning to Chernobyl after the disaster and unable to raise their young there.  Storks in Poland are as symbolic there as they are in Ukraine.

Our second stop was in Wrocław, a large city in western Poland.  We again had some free time to explore and performed in a large Ukrainian church where we again received a very warm welcome.  The next day we toured Krakow, a very beautiful and historic city.  We would have liked to have spent more time there as it was certainly worth the stop.

Poland is a wonderful country to tour, full of interesting sites and friendly people.  And with our knowledge of Ukrainian, we were very comfortable and managed with the language.

Our final stop was in Vienna, an absolute treasure.  A mix of Hapsburg treasures and the new Europe, it has surprises around every corner, full of coffee houses, cafes and enough museums to keep one busy for days.  There is an outdoor film festival screening a variety of films on a huge outdoor screen all summer, the best part being the forty food kiosks selling foods from around the world and all served on real china!  We had a free day to explore then had our second highlight of the tour when we sang a liturgy at St. Barbara’s Church which is the oldest Ukrainian Greek Catholic Parish this side of the former Iron Curtain. It was established in 1783 by the Austrian Emperor Josef II.  The special part was that Andrij Hnatyshyn, a well known and highly regarded Ukrainian composer, was the choir director here from 1931 to 1995 and we felt his spirit as we sang several of his arrangements in the liturgy.  The church was overflowing and people spilled out into the street so we sang a short concert after the liturgy on the steps of a nearby building in the small square in front of the church.

So we had a very busy trip full of singing, making new friends, trying a few of the hundreds of varieties of beer that Europe has to offer, enjoying delicious new foods and generally enjoying ourselves.  We worked hard to prepare for our first ever competitions and had fun wherever we went.  The World Choir Games were wonderfully organized and we sang our hearts out.  Poland turned out to be a very good substitute for Ukraine at this time and the Ukrainian communities there were delighted to have us.  Vienna is an absolute must that should be on every traveller’s list.  We look forward to our next venture!

 Article by Bill Lebedovich

World Choir Games 2014 - Certificates

Folklore category

Male Chamber Choir category

Sacred Music category