Maestro Kenney’s Adventures in Ukraine

Maestro Kenney’s Adventures in Ukraine

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 1

Guest Conductor Taras Krysa and Guest Flute Soloist Norman Menzales

On the day the Music Director of the Lviv Philharmonic, Taras Krysa, was conducting the Fort Collins Symphony in concert, I was on my way to Lviv, Ukraine.

I’ll admit it was a little disconcerting to see my suitcase get on the plane last as I was boarding the smallish regional jet for the trip between Munich and Lviv. On my arrival it was a sign of the times that we were checked for fever on entering the terminal. But passport control and gathering my belongings were quick and from the time I stepped off the plane to boarding a van for city center was about 15 minutes. The driver and a helper recognized me from the poster — had to trust that(!) — and soon we were on the cobblestone streets that is the normal road surface for this city.

Lviv International Airport

I spent the 90 minutes on my flight reading up about Lviv which is on the far west side of the country. Its proximity caused the area to be under Soviet rule for a much shorter amount of time. Thus the older influences of Europe are more prevalent than the square utilitarian structures found in other Soviet bloc cities. A long walk from my hotel to city center showed me those European influences in the structures of the buildings which reminded me of my recent visit to Prague. There are some very old churches mixed with more modern cathedrals.

This is a western friendly city with most menus in restaurants and street signs in the western alphabet along with the Cyrillic that is impossible to decipher without a study of that alphabet. Although I have yet to eat a meal in this town, it is clear that the choices are wide and varied. They are crazy about coffee — I passed no fewer than 12 coffee bars on my one-mile walk, beer (and their microbreweries), and hamburgers. But pizza, steaks, veal, and other western fare is also readily available and VERY inexpensive.  My contact with people has been positive despite the language barrier and I look forward to working with the orchestra starting on Tuesday. Tomorrow will be study and exploration.

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 2

Lviv breakfast

Monday was a layover day spent studying and walking around Lviv. Breakfast was in the hotel and was typical European fare with juice, cheese, yogurt, eggs — fried and scrambled, meats — hot and cold, some in the form of bacon or sausage. There are thin crepe-style pancakes to which you can add Nutella or fresh jam. Fresh breads, croissants, and other rolls are also available.

I certainly was expecting it to be colder based on a trip to Germany many years ago around this time of year, but the weather has been pleasantly mild. The sun came out for a while and you start to experience the various colors of buildings throughout the city, each of which has many hues.

Walking around mid-day looking for a lunch spot took me through an open-air market. Fresh flowers are in full bloom in the area for there are many vendors peddling their fresh-cut bouquets and plants.  If you are a couple walking by someone selling roses, beware, for they will make you a deal you can’t refuse! However, in the market there is everything from leather goods to lingerie and it is not for the claustrophobic. The aisles are narrow and it hard to get around the merchandise let alone the people shopping. Fortunately, it was just a Monday afternoon, but over a weekend it would seem these places would be teeming with crowded activity.

Concert poster Lviv Kenney

My lunch consisted of a beet and carrot root salad plus borscht. The latter is claimed by Ukrainians to be indigenous to their county. Both were delicious and filling.

After lunch I wandered around until I found first the opera house and then the Philharmonic concert hall where I’ll be rehearsing and performing this week.

After spending more time with my scores later in the afternoon, I went out for a simple dinner of a slice of pizza. It appears that pizza is extremely popular in Lviv as just about every other restaurant is offering it.  I made a point of taking side streets to discover a tremendous variety of restaurants (Thai and Chinese food are readily available), wine bars, kabob and burger places both in kiosks and sit down varieties, clubs of many sorts, Irish pubs, and more. Even on a Monday night, downtown is a big social gathering for many.

Tomorrow starts the rehearsal process and I am looking forward to getting to work with the musicians in Lviv!

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 3

After another substantial breakfast in the hotel, it was off to the Lviv Philharmonic Hall for my first rehearsal. From the hotel it is only a 6-minute walk to the hall and when winding your way through some narrow streets, you pass right by the Lviv Conservatory where the sounds of vocal and other instrumental practice can be heard drifting down to the street.

Alley in Lviv

Serhiy Khoravets is one of contacts at the Philharmonic and he meets me on the street with a big smile and handshake. We walk inside through a narrow hallway that leads to a set of stairs leading past the stage door and to the conductor’s room. It is an old building as most are in the downtown area, but the stage and room are made almost entirely of wood making for amazing resonance. The orchestra string section is quite large with 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 6 basses. 

The program for this week is the Barber Second Essay, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, and the Dvorak Symphony No. 6. We start with the Dvorak Symphony and I discover quickly that this full-time orchestra has an outstanding set of musicians who want to make a considerable statement in their music making. There are four rehearsals this week and compared to U.S. orchestras, the rehearsals are much longer, with longer breaks. So typically it is 75 minutes of playing, a 30 minute break, 60 minutes, a 15 minute break, then another 45 minutes — altogether 3 hours and 45 minutes. As a comparison, American orchestras rehearse for 2.5 hours which includes a 15 minute break. The first segment we worked to get acquainted, but also accomplish a lot of detail on the first and last movements of the symphony. After the break we spend one hour working out details on the Barber which they have never played. They are pretty much sight reading because I brought the parts with me from the US, but it doesn’t take them long to sort out the intricacies of the piece. The final 45 minutes we go back to the Dvorak to look at the internal movements. I am exhausted at the end of the rehearsal, but very encouraged that it is going to be a great week. They certainly fill the hall with sound — almost to a point of my ears ringing!

After the rehearsal I meet with my soloist — a 15-year-old talented young man who has never played the Tchaikovsky concerto with orchestra before. He is very well-prepared, but there is no substitute for the experience of actually rehearsing and performing in live concert, so he will learn a lot this week.

I return to my room at the hotel to rest and study, but eventually go out to get some dinner and decide to stop at a place called Epic Burger. I mentioned earlier that hamburgers are prevalent throughout the area and I’ve stumbled upon this place as one of the best. In fact it is one of the best burgers I have ever had. It is the “EPIC” burger, BBQ relish, fried egg, brioche bun, lettuce, tomato. Oh my, probably 1100 calories and SO good. There is also gravy to dip the burger in along with fries. Incredibly satisfying and a fabulous end to a fabulous day.

Tomorrow Leslie arrives and from all reports her travels are on schedule. Little did I know what would transpire on the next day. . . .

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 4

Skyline at night

Another big breakfast then off to rehearsal. The orchestra is quick to respond to changes and adjustments. The strings have bar numbers for the Dvorak but not the winds, so we asked that they get put in for today. Still, a few understand some English, but not all. This only slows the rehearsal process down mildly. Today is the first day to work with our soloist and we get through the entire concerto with a few changes being made. Some challenging spots for sure in the Tchaikovsky Bb minor concerto, but we run through some tough passages a couple of times and seem to be relatively in sync. 

Dvorak movements 1 and 4 are worked over thoroughly as is the Barber which the orchestra seems to enjoy. The acoustics on the stage are very loud so getting softer nuances can be challenging. Hard surfaces everywhere allow for those in the rear to be easily heard, but the orchestra has to be reminded often to not overdo the louder dynamics. 

Sunset in Lviv

The room I was given at the IBIS Style hotel was clean and modern, but rather small. OK for just me, but today my wife Leslie arrives and so the front desk suggested a larger room. It is on one of the upper floors and therefore has not only a view of the city skyline, but also a rather large deck where we can soak up a few rays, watch the sunrise, and listen to the city come alive during the day.

It is a short walk into the city center to the shopping spots and most of the restaurants. I quickly move my belongings to this room before departing for rehearsal. On my return Leslie is on her way from the airport which gives me a chance to set things up a bit before her arrival. She is jet-lagged, but no worse for wear, and is eager to explore Lviv. 

On this evening we are met by two people from the orchestra. Tobias is the principal violist of the Lviv Philharmonic and Anastasia the 3rd Flute and Piccolo. Both are former students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Tobias played in the orchestra when I conducted Don Giovanni there a couple of years ago and Anastasia came to one of those performances. Both are happy to be working musicians in a full-time orchestra; still, they are needing to do other things to make ends meet. As an example, Tobias teaches English on-line to Asian students. 

We go out to dinner at an Italian restaurant and learn more about them and their backgrounds. Tobias, for the most part, grew up in Las Vegas, did his Bachelors at Manhattan School of Music, then his Masters at UNLV. During his undergraduate work he spent two years in Wellington, NE on a mission for the Mormon Church. Anastasia is from the Island of Cyprus in Greece, did her Bachelors at Emporia College in Kansas, and then came to UNLV for her Masters. Both met Taras Krysa there who is the Director of Orchestras at UNLV and Music Director of the Lviv Philharmonic. There are others in the orchestra from Las Vegas as well, but they are not playing this concert. During December half the orchestra toured China (Tobias’ group), and the other half toured Germany (Anastasia). They tell us that rather than having a full year’s contract, they sign a new one every month as a renewal. Thus, their situation is rather insecure, but they are pleased to get the playing experience the orchestra affords. 

After dinner we walk around a bit, but end up at a chocolate factory where there are hundreds of gifts to choose from and a cafe on multiple floors. On this evening only the top (5th) floor is open, only accessible by stairs! There is hot chocolate all around which we enjoy as we talk more about music and their lives.

We eventually descend to the street, bid our new acquaintances good night, and head back to the hotel. Two rehearsals down and two to go. 

I am awakened at 3:30 AM by a phone call from Taras telling me that the U.S. has just imposed a travel ban from Europe due to the Coronavirus and suggest I get on the next plane back to America. We start a process of contacting travel agents, but it is after business hours in Colorado so there is no response. Perhaps it is just as well for details on the ban start to sort out and give us a clearer picture. We also discover that Ukraine has imposed a ban on any gathering larger than 200 people. Taras seemed confident that the concert would go on and as it turns out, the travel ban does not restrict Americans returning home from abroad. There is no way to contact the airlines (sat on hold for long periods and finally gave up). We send emails to our travel agents and put the situation in their hands. The next day would hopefully provide more information as to what we will be able to do on the rest of this trip.  

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 5

It is quite interesting to watch catastrophic world events emerging when you are far from your own home. Of course, there is the time change: Lviv is 8 hours ahead of Denver, and 6 hours ahead of the events happening in Washington. As reports are unfolding, we awake to find that our travel agents have in fact discovered that our flights for the following Wednesday from Kiev to Munich have been canceled by Lufthansa, but there was no effort on the airlines’ part to rebook us. Thus the next day leaves us wondering what our itinerary is going to be. Should we fly back from Lviv? Do we stay until Saturday and fulfill the professional obligation with the Lviv Philharmonic? Later in the day we were informed that our flights will now be on Monday from Kiev to Frankfurt and then on to Denver. So close to the same itinerary with only a change in the connection city. This is in great part to the joint and heroic efforts of Jane Folsom at Destination by Design and Ann Dean at New Horizons Travel. 

Furthermore, we learned that CSU is suspending live instruction after spring break, and the Fort Collins Symphony along with most other arts organizations are canceling or postponing events across the country. It is a worrisome period, particularly for artists who are most of the time living hand to mouth and dependent on the performances in which they participate. Now the ensemble directors at any university have to determine how to provide instruction in a distance learning situation. Creativity will need to be at the forefront of our efforts. At least we have until after Spring break to sort it out. 

Street in Lviv

Meanwhile, life goes on in Lviv with their own growing concerns. There is talk of the “virus,” but the Executive Director of the orchestra shows up ten minutes before Thursday’s rehearsal and asks if he can have five minutes to talk to the musicians onstage. This is so he can assure the orchestra that despite a ban by the Ukrainian government of any gathering of over 200 people, the concert the next night would go on. As he said to me, “we are not a government agency; that makes it different” — translated as exempt? The rehearsal sees the orchestra continuing to work hard bringing the music to life. There are subtleties in the Dvorak Symphony that are emerging. This is my first crack at conducting a truly European orchestra and their kinship with Dvorak and Tchaikovsky is being clearly demonstrated. As the principal cellist pointed out to me, Tchaikovsky’s roots and the tunes in his piano concerto are based on some Ukrainian folk melodies. One troublesome aspect is their Steinway piano that does not want to hold a tune in the top octave. The piano was out the previous day, particularly the top Ab (a critical pitch in Bb minor) and it was the same on Thursday. As soon as the rehearsal is over a piano technician is at the keyboard trying to solve the issue. 

In the afternoon following the morning session, Leslie and I grab a light lunch, and then head for the cobblestone streets to walk through open air markets, view the opera house, some of the churches and cathedrals in the area and stop in some souvenir shops.


Lviv has adopted recently the lion as an icon of the city. As a result, you see it on many trinkets, sculptures, and other paraphernalia. We return to the hotel then meet Anastasia for dinner at a most unusual restaurant that is a former stronghold for the Ukrainian underground. To start, you knock on the door and a man opens a window and asks a question (in Ukrainian of course) to which one answers — in Ukrainian of course — “Glory to Ukraine.” Then you are given a shot of schnapps and granted entry to the vast catacombs of rooms where rough tables and chairs await your party. The restaurant serves indigenous dishes including potato pancakes and borscht both served with ample amounts of sour cream, pierogi and, on this evening, the largest piece of pork belly I’ve seen on a plate. There is a gift shop with many unusual items to commemorate your visit. It is fun to speak with Anastasia about her life on Cypress and how she has learned to speak Ukrainian using an App called Duo-lingo. 

We head back to the hotel and seem secure that our return to the U.S. is still as previously indicated, but as everyone now knows, everything is evolving. 

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 6

Concert day. The dress rehearsal on the morning of the performance is shortened to 3 hours (with a 30 minute break.) When I arrive at the hall I’m again met by the executive director who says he needs another 5 minutes of time to talk to the orchestra. This time he brings the sobering news that tonight will be their last concert in a while. I’m told later that he referred everyone to the book Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, literature he is reading currently, and drawing some parallels in the process with the current world condition. 

Not exactly the best way to start a rehearsal, but as with all musicians, we take solace in our art and once the music begins the distraction is pushed to the back of people’s minds. Everything goes well with the Barber. At the end before we move onto the piano concerto, I tell the orchestra how much I’ve enjoyed working with them. That tonight is very special for the music, but also for a lasting memory as we go forward into the unknown. The Tchaikovsky goes very well, but that upper octave in the piano remains unstable. Leslie and Anastasia are in the audience this morning listening and give me some thoughts on balance and ensemble, and we make the adjustments. We run the Dvorak with the orchestra showing the depth of music they are capable of. It is going to be a great evening. 

Souveniers and ties market

After rehearsal Leslie and I return to city central to gather up souvenirs.

The chocolate factory is a must! We grab a quick midday lunch then rest during the late afternoon. Concert begins at 7 pm and as we walk up to the hall, an orchestra manager asks me how I would feel about the piano being put into place for the concerto at the start of the concert. I voice my concern that the strings for the Barber may not fit if we do this. They decide to leave the piano on the stage but off to the side. I understand their concern as the instrument is just below my dressing room and I can hear, even 5 minutes before downbeat, that the high Ab is an issue. The technician plays it over and over and over! Fast, slow, loud, soft. We can only hope for the best. 

In the European tradition, the orchestra members come out onstage en masse, take their places, and then tune. There are no programs for this concert, but a woman acting as an emcee comes out and announces each piece and the artists. The Barber is performed with a crackling electricity which excites me to no end. A great start to what would be a memorable night. The piano is then moved into place. The Tchaikovsky Concerto gets a terrific performance by Bohrdan and miraculously the intonation holds throughout. The enthusiastic audience starts clapping in rhythm and I encourage our young soloist to play an encore, which he does: A Liszt Transcendental Etude. Bohrdan is given multiple bouquets which I hold for him so he can bow. Unfortunately he is not fully steeped in stage etiquette so I can’t get the orchestra up for a bow — they certainly earned it! 

Wes Kenney with Bohrdan

Many well-wishers come up to the dressing room adjacent to mine to wish this incredibly talented soloist well. The former Artistic Director of the Lviv Opera comes to my half of the room and gives me kisses on either cheek (obviously the virus is not a concern to him!), then telling me in perfect Ukraine something about how moving the performance was. Parents, teachers, and more thank me as well. Bohrdan has quite a following already!

The second half Dvorak performance becomes an extraordinary musical experience. The orchestra is fully flexible in their attention. The second movement in particular is a rendition I will not soon forget. The excitement carries to the end and the audience gives the orchestra a well-deserved standing ovation. As it may be the last performance by this group or me for the near future, it is a thrilling way to go out. 

After the concert, Marco the concertmaster comes to my dressing room and thanks me for the work adding that he hopes to see me again soon. This is the sentiment I was hearing from several of the musicians. Considering that our visit to the Ukraine is being cut short, I hope that it is not in the too distant future. We have certainly enjoyed ourselves in this quaint and interesting city. 

Dinner after the concert

For a post-concert celebration Leslie and I go with Tobias (who came to the concert) and Anatasia for a BBQ rib dinner. This restaurant is located inside one end of the Lviv Fortress. Thus we are surrounded by large stone rooms separated by old wooden arches. There are no utensils for anyone; everything is eaten by hand. The racks come to our table, are cut up by our server’s heavy and sharp meat cleaver, then disappear quickly along with roasted vegetables; cheese; a most interesting tear open, dip, and eat salad; plus wine and beer. 

It is a great way to cap off our week in Lviv before we depart for Kyiv the next day. We say good-bye to our new found colleagues with the hope of seeing them again soon. Back to the hotel for some well-earned rest! 

Ukrainian Adventure, Part 7

The day after the concert we spent a leisurely morning getting ready to leave Lviv and head to Kyiv. This was after deciding as planned we would head on to the capital of Ukraine since our flights would leave from there, albeit earlier than expected.

Alamo building in Lviv

We could tell that people were starting to distance themselves a bit more while eating breakfast in the restaurant of our hotel. Still, in walking over on a Saturday to the open air market we’d been in before, the stores were filled with people, although not as many as the previous weekend. A few more gifts were purchased (the fruit jams looked fabulous!) before returning to the hotel and moving down to the lobby where we would meet our driver from the Lviv Philharmonic who would shuttle us to the train station. The ride took almost 40 minutes and we were glad they provided us with the transportation so we could avoid taking one of the street trams that might have taken even longer. That mode of travel would have made us a bit nervous since we really didn’t know where we were going and as it turned out the train station was way out on the edge of town.

The train station in Lviv is an older, but wonderfully classical structure. It has a central lobby and then two waiting rooms on either side at the front and the hallways to the platforms and trains to the rear. We arrived plenty early to catch our 11:30 train and wandered about trying to determine which track our train would be on. Much of the train info on the electronic announcement board in the lobby was in Cyrillic as well as the western alphabet. But the signs in the hallways leading to the platforms were ONLY in Cirillic, so we were left somewhat guessing.

With our platform determined, we wandered over to one waiting area, not realizing that our tickets would have allowed us to be in the other. The waiting room we did sit in was very crowded with people not trying to distance themselves at all. We found a couple of seats and hunkered together to wait for our departure. A family with multiple children was seated to our left, some on the floor, some leaning on me and squirming. Then, just to add to the cultural experience, a fist fight broke out right in front of us with the two gentlemen (?) launching themselves onto the floor and landing on Leslie’s foot, wrestling for at least five minutes. It was at that point that we decided our train was beckoning us . . . and got up with our luggage and headed for the tracks. That was when I discovered the other lounge for first class passengers, nearly empty, on the other side of the main hall. Live and learn . . .

The train was now loading and I managed to show the conductor (a real train conductor) our tickets and she mentioned in broken English we were in the car where she stood and that we should follow the “yellow” signs. As we discovered, the numbers and the colors had multiple choices. Since I’d purchased the tickets online, I wasn’t totally sure how the compartments work (all in Cyrillic) so at first we were separated into two compartments, then seated ourselves into the wrong compartment and asked to move, but finally managed to find a place we could sit together for the 6 hour train trip.

Lviv is more on the western part of Ukraine, thus it was warmer at this time of year and the flowers as has been pointed out were marvelous. Kyiv is north central and it was clear as we travelled that the trees and flora were still coming out of winter slumber. Furthermore, the land was flat and not very interesting so sleeping and reading were the order of the day. We would discover upon arrival that Kyiv was downright chilly and even with the sun out, it stayed that way for the duration of our trip.

Just before the train departed the Lviv station, I went out and purchased a couple of sandwiches, beer, and bottled water. Glad we did, for the provisions on the train were very limited. Our conductor did give us some coffee at some point which we were happy to have. But otherwise, this was not going to be a very entertaining part of our adventure.

Hotel bed

It was close to 6 PM by the time we arrived in the Kyiv station–a much more modern structure than from where we departed. As with Lviv, no elevators were available up to the passageways. A gentleman offered to help and we acquiesced and paid the $10 for his services getting us out to the curb where we could acquire transportation. The taxi ride to the Aloft hotel was $25, but the driver was affable, spoke some broken English, pointed out some sites along the way, and then deposited us on the doorstep. We were happy to be at our next stop, even happier when they told us the hotel was relatively empty so they had upgraded us to the top floor. While there, we told them our trip had to be cut short (we would leave on Monday as opposed to Wednesday) and the girl at the front desk informed us that Ukraine was shutting its borders to travel between Monday and Tuesday at midnight. Thus our cancellation of two nights was greeted without concern. We were thrilled to enter our room which was very large, modern, with two different sitting areas, and incredible views of the city.

Salad in Lviv

The Aloft hotel is on a street with many tall modern buildings, but also mixed with other older structures. We would not discover the Soviet influence of architecture until the next day. We decided to walk to dinner in an area laden with many restaurants and businesses. The Pervak restaurant was on multiple lists and had an extensive menu plus a long wine list. Our waiter was very affable, spoke relatively good English and we enjoyed the lovely ambiance. The food lived up to its reputation and we had plenty of leftovers that we would eat the following evening.

On our way back, Leslie had spotted a furrier on the taxi ride to the hotel. We stopped in with some hope since our calculations seemed to indicate that there were unbelievable deals to be had. Fortunately I realized that I was missing a zero on my exchange rate and with that we quickly departed, realizing that it was no different than shopping in Beverly Hills. We concluded our travel day by gazing at the dazzling lights found on many buildings we could view from our hotel room. We were looking forward to exploring what appeared to be a rather vibrant city the next day!