This opera by Valentyn Bibik (1940-2003) is based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous play of the same name. The well-known Ukrainian composer finished the opera’s first and second versions in 1972 and 1984, respectively. Ukrainian musicians have been waiting for the premiere of this opera for almost 40 years (!), but Bulgakov and Bibik were, unfortunately “out of vogue” in the 1970s-1980s. (Incidentally, the composer himself wrote the libretto on the basis of the play.) In the 1990s opera was the last thing to care about.
Nothing would have changed if Roman Kofman had not intervened. The conductor has not only held dozens of rehearsals and a triumphal premiere: in collaboration with the composer Oleksandr Shchetynsky, he made his own version of Flight’s score and a piano reduction, and staged a real extravaganza. And, what is more, he virtually made the performers fall in love with Bibik’s music. A whole “army” of musicians took part in the premiere: the National Philharmonic Symphony Ochestra, the Credo chamber choir, the men’s group of the Anima choir, the group of boys and youths of the Revutsky Municipal Chorus, and two dozens of Kyiv’s best vocalists. The latter did not sing, as usual, “from aria to aria” (incidentally, there are no arias in Bibik’s opera, for it is written in a melodious recitative, with utmost care taken of Bulgakov’s text): they exerted themselves to the limit — passionately, brilliantly, and acting in a most convincing manner.
One of the initiators, inspirers and witnesses of this production was Bibik’s younger daughter Viktoria, a concert pianist. She was her father’s private secretary: she would conduct business correspondence, type scores on the computer, and do a great deal of other “invisible” work. Today Viktoria is coordinating hundreds of the performances of Bibik’s works throughout the world. And nobody else but her can tell us who Valentyn Bibik really was and why it took the opera Flight, one of his outstanding oeuvres, a solid forty years to reach audiences.
“My father’s music has always been played in Kyiv — from his first works onwards. In spite of stubborn resistance on the part of some of his older colleagues and the authorities, his music could still force through into concert halls thanks to the performers who liked and defended as much as they could my father’s oeuvres,” Viktoria Bibik told The Day. “Many of the Kyiv premieres featured Ihor Blazhkov who had recorded father’s solo disc at the Moscow-based company Melody back in the early 1970s. Roman Kofman also began to play father’s music in those years. His works were also performed by the Kyiv Chamber Choir conducted by Viktor Ikonnyk and by the Moscow pianists Igor Zhukov and Yury Smirnov who gave concerts here. Father stayed in close contact with the conductor Georgy Vazin, the violinist Bohdan Kotorovych, and the bass Yevhen Ivanov. The very first performances engendered a circle of admirers amongst his colleagues, including composers and musicologists. He made friends with Valentyn Sylvestrov, Leonid Hrabovsky, Vitalii Hodziatsky, Olena Zinkevych, and Maryna Cherkashyna.
“After my father’s death in 2003, as I was busy organizing performances of his music all over the world, I was deeply distressed at the fact that only musicians and audiences of his generation knew Bibik’s works, while young people were almost ignorant of him (his works have rarely been performed in Ukraine over the past 10-15 years).
“Having come back to Kyiv after a long pause in 2008 with a suitcase full of discs and notes and a tremendous desire to change the situation, I saw great interest in my father’s music. In the past year alone, Kyiv has seen a number of concerts based on Valentyn Bibik’s legacy. The comeback is something to behold!”
In 1994, when Mr. Bibik was already a well-known composer and pedagogue, he left his native Kharkiv and moved to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). Why?
“In Kharkiv, we lived in a very interesting milieu. We were in fact neighbors to the prominent musician Regina Horowitz, a sister of the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Father showed her Thirty Four Preludes and a Fugue. He mingled with many outstanding musicians. He would make frequent and long visits to Kyiv, went many times to Moscow, and had friends in Leningrad. It so happened that I had not been staying in Kharkiv since the mid-1980s — I first went to Moscow for studies and then to Leningrad, whereas father remained behind in Kharkiv until 1994. I can remember very well his last solo recital in Kharkiv in 1993. I played Thirty Nine Variations on Dies Irae. The soiree drew a full house, but father was totally confused. Many old-age people had departed this life, and that was also the beginning of a mass-scale exodus of young musicians. The composer Vitalii Hubarenko and his wife, the musicologist Maryna Cherkashyna, had moved to Kyiv, and the circle of friends was growing ever more narrow. Meanwhile, a nasty atmosphere reigned in Kharkiv. So this raised the question of leaving the city, although he would have never left under different circumstances. What he considered the most important things were home and peace. In Kharkiv, he lived quite a comfortable life: a huge apartment that was always open to many musicians who would come from the US, Moscow, Petersburg, etc. Father’s students would spend days and nights at our place, and I was so glad to see many of them at the Flight premiere. He supported and helped more than one of them. Now they come up to me and recall the past, and this makes me teary-eyed.
“It is now in vogue to beat oneself in the breast and say: ‘You left, but I stayed behind, I didn’t leave!’ Dissidence was once a matter of pride, now it is patriotism. Father regarded both of his serious relocations as some external events. He had had close ties with Leningrad for a long time. His friends lived there, including composer Boris Tishchenko, conductor Aleksandr Dmitriev, music critic Mikhail Bialik, father’s pupil, composer Leonid Desiatnikov, pianist Oleg Malov, violinist Aleksandr Yuriev, and many others. And when it became clear that relocation was inevitable, father chose Leningrad. All things went smoothly: working at the conservatoire, communicating with people… For Leningrad was an incredibly complex city — it was not Moscow to which people were rushing from all over the Soviet Union.
“As soon as father came, Andrei Petrov, the then chair of the local Composers League, organized his solo recital. The Tenth Symphony was performed in the Petersburg Philharmonic’s Grand Hall. Naturally, any removal is a removal. But the beginning of the Petersburg period was not the beginning of an absolutely new life for father.”
So what forced him to leave this city, too, and move to Israel?
“We were all leaving together: father, mother, my elder sister, and I. Father had been overloaded with daily work in St. Petersburg: he usually spent all weekdays with students. The telephone would ring without a stop, and he just had no time to compose music. Once the now late, unfortunately, pianist Aleksandr Volkov, a pupil of Alexander Goldenweiser, came from Israel to visit us. Father told him about his ‘eventful’ life, and Volkov promised to arrange an invitation to Tel Aviv and took some notes and scores with him. Events unfolded at breakneck speed. Once they saw the scores, they sent an invitation. Israel considered it an honor to have father as professor at Tel Aviv University. The conditions were as follows: he was to deliver a lecture once a week on any subject he wished for six months and just to compose music, without having to come to work, for the next six months. Unique conditions of work! Students from all over the world would come to attend those lectures. At first he gave them in English and, just a year later, he switched to Hebrew. At the same time, father was awarded a state prize on which he could live easily without thinking about daily bread. He was invited to preside over a composers’ competition and awarded the Composer of the Year prize. His works could be heard on the radio and were performed by many musicians. He gave a number of solo concerts. I recently read in an announcement: ‘Bibik, an Israeli composer,’ but this is wrong! The composers in Israel are an altogether different milieu, while father came to that country as a fully-fledged musician. Valentyn Bibik is a Ukrainian composer who lived in Russia and Israel for some time. He always emphasized this and considered himself a truly Ukrainian composer.”
I wonder how a venerable-age maestro managed to switch first to English and then to Hebrew!
“When Valentyn Bibik lived in Kharkiv, he did not need to know English. Father spoke English rather poorly — just on a basic level. Many of the Western musicians who visited the former USSR spoke Russian. When I grew up a little, I became his secretary: I would write letters, type scores, and do millions of other things for him. When in Leningrad, father began to seriously learn English: his contacts were widening, and he wanted to communicate without translators. In Israel he learned Hebrew in a year’s time so well that he could deliver lectures. So many people would come to see this strange professor! It is now difficult to say, but I think that, hadn’t it been for an illness, father would have then gone to Germany to give lectures. In any case, he wanted to do so. There were some invitations from there, too. When father was still in Leningrad, he was offered a German scholarship, but he had to wait. And the Israel problem was solved very quickly.”
What were the conditions in which Bibik composed the opera Flight?
“Many enthused about Bulgakov’s oeuvre in the 1960s, but father never tried to follow fads. He perceived music, as well as human relations, in absolutely pure terms, without any interference of politics or vogue. But I utterly disagree with Sasha Shchetynsky that he was unaware of what kind of anti-Soviet things he was composing. Naturally, he was very well aware. Flight is a symbol of the 20th century. The topic of Flight worried father throughout his lifetime. He thought it was ‘the topic of the century.’ When he took interest in the play, he met Bulgakov’s widow Elena in Moscow. Then she sent him a letter in which she gave her blessing to the composition of this opera. The score was finished in 1972 and immediately shown at the Maly Opera Theater, a theater which could put on the works that would have undoubtedly been banned at other places. At the same time, in Leningrad, mother and he sang the whole opera — all the female and male parts, respectively. Doing this, father overstrained his voice and could not speak for a week. The opera was cleared for production, with Aleksandr Dmitriev to be the chief conductor. Then the local Party bosses telegraphed that the city named after the October Revolution leader could not possibly hear music dedicated to the White Army.”
What happened to the opera then?
“When the Leningrad production was banned, father fell into despair, but he didn’t want scandal. Then the opera was banned in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Discouraged by the impossibility to stage the opera in a theater, father would show some scenes to his composer colleagues and performers in Moscow, Petersburg, and Kyiv. Musicologist Olena Zinkevych came up to me after the premiere and said: ‘But I remember this music!’ Maryna Cherkashyna and many others said the same. Father finally lost hope at a certain moment, and the score was kept in the drawer for a long time. The opera might have been produced at Mariinsky Theater in the 1990s, when father met Valery Gergiev, but that was the time of new works — they were in the limelight and the problems of Flight receded to the background. Father never had the chance to see his opera staged in his lifetime.”
The opera is full of many brilliant ideas, as far as the music’s texture is concerned — different stylistic layers overlap, Orthodox and Oriental music is mixed with jazz. All the vocal numbers can be heard very well (the only duet is in the finale), a capella monologues create a great impression, and there are abrupt drops of human passions — love, starvation, treason — to “requiem-like” choral interpretations. This raises the question: what was Bibik’s attitude to religion?
“The choirs at the end of the opera’s every scene are based on Orthodox prayers. Father was raised on this culture. He viewed prayers as not ‘facts of culture’ but something very personal, an appeal to God via music. In the opera, Orthodox Russians suddenly find themselves in a totally different world, in an alien milieu. For them, it is the end of the world, but their own world has been ruined, too, and there is no way to go. ‘Where will you flee, Grigory Lukianovich? There’s no place to run to…’ We all went through this condition in the 20th century. Naturally, we cannot even compare 1917 and 1991, but the fallen country and all of us began to face a new reality. Yes, the world has become more open, we can now travel and make contact, but the fact remains that there is no longer the country we were born in. Flight is also a symbol of the 20th century because it shows the circumstances under which man remains one on one with himself, when there is nothing to hold on to. Each survives as they can…”
Is there a hope that the opera will be shown in Kyiv not only in a concert version but also on theatrical stage?
“I am absolutely sure that Flight will be put on in Kyiv. The only question is when. I will do all I can to accelerate this process. I would like Kyiv to have a Bibik music research center. From this angle, the world premiere of the opera Flight is a significant event and a turning point in Ukraine’s attitude to my father’s oeuvre.”
What important productions are expected in the nearest future?
“I am now going to the Moscow Autumn festival, where Bibik’s works are played every year, with rare exceptions. This year a wonderful clarinetist, Yevgeny Petrov, is playing Signs, a sonata for clarinet, one of his latest works. This oeuvre was premiered by David Gresham, a New York-based Juilliard School professor, at the Lincoln Center festival. I would love this work to be performed in Kyiv — I stay in contact with the Kyiv clarinetist Oleksii Boiko. In January Novosibirsk is going to host a world premiere of the 2nd Viola Concerto, performed by the Teodor Currentzis orchestra and the brilliant soloist Maxim Risanov, who now resides in London. We also expect a springtime premiere of the 3rd Violin Concerto in Petersburg. I insisted that Dmitry Tkachenko play it. Plans galore…”