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Culture

Ukraine's Shchedryk Children's Choir bring holiday cheer

Deutsche Welle presents live and festive concert recordings from the Shchedryk Children's Choir. The ensemble is gearing up for its 40th anniversary but looks back on a history that has had its share of challenges.

Singers in the Shchedryk Children's Choir

Most choir members range from 13 to 17 years of age and hail from Kiev, Ukraine

A swallow interrupts its journey to pass through a family's house on New Year's Day, bringing them wealth and prosperity for the coming year. That's an image from a Ukrainian folk song called "Shchedryk," known to ears in the English-speaking world by way of Peter Wihousky's holiday adaptation: the "Carol of the Bells."

The folk song is also the namesake of one of Ukraine's most famous groups of young singers, the Shchedryk Children's Choir. The singers have won awards throughout the world, and in 2005 they even performed with the Pope in audience.

Like in the song from which the ensemble takes its name, the new year marks a special turning point for the Shchedryk Children's Choir. The group celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2011.

Political challenges

The children's ensemble got its start in 1971, founded by the well-known Ukrainian choirmaster Iryna Mykolayivna Sablina. Her goal was to offer a contrast to the idealized image of Soviet childhood that many other youth ensembles in her country promoted.

Instead, she focused on the classical repertoire and aimed to develop the artistic and musical sensibilities of the children she conducted. But those goals weren't viewed favorably by Ukrainian authorities, said her husband, conductor Roman Kofman.

Singers in the Shchedryk Children's Choir

International tours are nothing new for the group, which sung at the 2010 Beethovenfest

"I must say, Iryna is a woman who never compromises and she sometimes got into difficulties when it comes to cultural politics," Kofman explained. "The cultural committee summoned her and said of their repertoire, 'Songs about Lenin - none. Songs about the Party - none. Songs about the homeland - none. Songs by Western European composers - 197. Songs by Russian composers - also nearly 100. What do you have to say for yourself?'"

Kofman said his wife replied: "I have a responsibility to the parents for the aesthetic education of these children. Give me songs about Lenin or the Party of the same musical standard as a Bach cantata or a song by Rachmaninov - but they just don't exist."

Into the future

The political challenges of the 1970s and 80s are now history for the orchestra, and a new but familiar face is at the podium. Iryna Sablina retired from conducting the group in 2004, and her daughter, Marianna Sablina, has now taken charge.

Around 50 members make up the choir, but not all of them go on tour. International appearances are reserved for the best singers within the ensemble.

"The choristers are selected according to strict qualitative criteria and come from all levels of society," Marianna Sablina explained, adding that they meet three times a week to practice."

Their repertoire still draws from classic Western and Russian composers, but also includes Ukrainian folk music traditions.

Have a listen to the live recordings below to hear some festive selections sung by the Shchedryk Children's Choir at a Deutsche Welle Concerto Discreto concert in Bonn.

Author: Inge Ivanovic (gsw)
Editor: Rick Fulker

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