By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus’ concert Sunday at Ford Recital Hall will be its first in Youngstown with a Mahoning Valley resident as a member.
The 100-year-old folk ensemble features the bandura, a stringed instrument that is unique to Ukraine. As of last year, it also includes Fred Yasnowski of Lordstown.
The all-male UBC features 16 bandurists and around 30 singers – including Yasnowski. It performs the traditional music of the Ukraine and also newer compositions, including some by its artistic director, Oleh Malay of Cleveland. It was founded in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev in 1918, and is celebrating its centennial this year.
Yasnowski is pleased and honored to be part of the historic chorus.
A native of Sharpsville, Pa., who attended Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Youngstown as he was growing up, Yasnowski grew up in a home full of ethnic music.
In addition to singing in the UBC, he also plays the bugarija, a Croatian instrument, with the ZAPS, a regional band that plays Eastern European folk music. He also plays drums with the Jack Vasko Orchestra.
Yasnowski, who works at Heritage Valley Health in Beaver, Pa., maintains a busy schedule. After Sunday’s concert in Youngstown, he will travel with the UBC to Ukraine for a two-week stint of performances.
A lifelong musician, Yasnowski has been playing in bands since he was 16 and had his own act, The Musical Collection, for 15 years.
“I was brought up in a home with ethnic music and through the years played many Ukrainian, Croatian and other ethnic weddings, picnics, dances and festivals,” he said.
Yasnowski also sang in the choir of both local Ukrainian Catholic Churches – Holy Trinity and St. Anne in Austintown, which he now attends. He also sang with the Western Pennsylvania Ukrainian Cultural Trust Chorus of Pittsburgh.
The bandura is a “powerful” instrument, said Yasnowski, with a sound that is between a lute and a harp. It has 65 strings but no fretboard, and the player must pluck the strings rapidly to create melody.
Because of its strong emotional and historical bond to Ukrainians, playing of the bandura has been banned twice, first by the occupying force of the Soviet Union, and then Germany, out of fear that it would reawaken the national identity that they were trying to suppress.
For Yasnowski, joining the UBC was something he wanted to do for several years.
“I first saw them in 1979 when they played a concert at Chaney High School,” said Yasnowski, noting that he was part of a Ukrainian dance troupe at the time.
He caught the UBC again in 1988 at a performance in Washington, D.C.
When the ensemble returned to Youngstown in 2012 for a short Christmas concert at Holy Trinity Church, Yasnowski began thinking about joining it. His effort began in earnest in 2016 when he met a member of the UBC who was visiting his mother – a parishioner at the church – and sat in with the choir.
In his conversations with him, Yasnowski learned how to set up an audition, which took place in October 2016 in Parma.
He was granted a nine-month probation period during which he attended all practices and shows, and became a full-fledged member in 2017.
Although the bandura is closely tied to the people of Ukraine, Yasnowsk said the concert is for anyone.
“You don’t have to be Ukrainian to appreciate the music,” he said, although it is sung in Ukrainian. “A lot of people go to the opera even though they don’t understand Italian. There are a lot of harmonies in the vocals and also in the banduras.”
The bandura’s history goes back many centuries. It was used by the kobzari, who were the traveling minstrels of Ukraine in the 1500s and 1600s, traveling from village to village, telling stories, sharing news and performing.
Oley Mahlay, artistic director of the UBC, said Sunday’s concert in Youngstown will provide a retrospective of the ensemble’s history and its music.
“If this is someone’s first UBC concert, [the concert] is an ideal primer on the history of the group, the unique instrument we play, and the Ukrainian folk and choral tradition,” said Mahlay.
While the UBC preserves the classics of bandura music, it is always looking to expand its repertoire and explore new ways to present the bandura and male choral singing.
“Some of my own arrangements and compositions are part of our current repertoire and I always keep an eye out for new music from other composers, as well,” said Mahlay.
Because of its role in keeping alive the history of the nation by traveling minstrels, Mahlay said the bandura holds a special place in Ukrainian culture, history and society.
“The instrument takes on a mystical and spiritual essence which transcends being a mere musical tool,” he said. “This instrument became, and continues to this day, to be a living archive of Ukrainian history. While a library my be easy to set fire to, and that is something that occurred frequently in the Soviet Union, it is much more difficult to capture and bury an oral tradition such as the one the kobzari kept alive for centuries. “That is why this tradition and this instrument are so special to the Ukrainian people. It’s not just a musical instrument. It is the soul of Ukraine.”