Odessa festival 1998: music as a means for emancipation – 2022: democracy Ukraine under attack

In 2014 the Ukrainians ousted their autocratic, Russian oriented president Viktor Yanukovych. Now their hard-won freedom is under attack from Vladimir Putin. In 1998 people I met at the festival Two Days & Two Nights of New Music in Odessa told me they believed hearing music from the West would ultimately be their path to democracy. Here is the article I wrote for the September issue 1998 of the British magazine The Wire.

Odessa, May 1998

For the fourth year in succession Odessa, city of the Potemkin Steps, was the scene of the festival Two Days and Two Nights of New Music this April. Crammed into a discotheque and sitting at tables, a massive crowd listened to the latest music from East and West.

An exuberant sun is shining when a group of some twenty musicians from all over Europe arrive at Odessa Airport. We are met by Karmella Tsepkolenko, artistic director of the festival, and members of the organizing Renaissance Foundation. This in turn is funded by the American Soros Foundation – there is no money for culture in Ukraine. Yet in a brochure the recently re-elected mayor Hurvitz brazenly claims all the credits for the festival.


Later that evening we are treated to an abundant meal, washed down with lots of vodka and champagne. The official reception takes place at the local conservatoire the next morning. The once grand, but now dilapidated building breathes a lively atmosphere. Here there will be masterclasses and workshops in the three days preceding the festival, so that the students have a chance to come into direct contact with musicians and composers from Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The workshops attract many students, yet are slightly disappointing. German composer Ernst-Helmuth Flammer gives a dense lecture on the measure in which Bruckner and Mahler point forward to new music. The interpreter monotonously recites the Russian translation, while the students take notes half-heartedly, or sneak out. French saxophonist Pierre-Stéphane Meugé arrives almost an hour late, and hasn’t prepared anything at all.


But when English trombone player Barrie Webb rolls up his sleeves to give a true old fashioned masterclass, only one student appears to have prepared something. After this, the workshop of Dutch pianist Kees Wieringa is a relief. He is working on a fiercely difficult repetitive piece by Simeon ten Holt, and the students crowd round the two pianos.

The Odessa Conservatoire (restored after 1998)

Yet also Wieringa acknowledges that only one student actually practised the score he sent them months in advance. Seemingly the students have an enormous craving for new music, but somehow it’s as if they expect that by merely listening intently, they will automatically master the techniques. The Russian composer Alexander Radvilovich explains: ‘People in the East have still not learnt to take responsibility. During the soviet regime the state thought for them. This not only explains their lax attitude, but also the fact that they don’t dare complain when somebody gives a shitty masterclass.’


Friday afternoon, at 4 pm the festival bursts loose. The Ukrainian Marine Orchestra opens with Frederic Rzewski’s Coming together. Could it be more symbolic? The venue looks a bit like the Amsterdam Paradiso, but is about twice as big. The stage stretches out into the hall, and is surrounded by tables and chairs. It is packed with a very mixed crowd. Not the specialised, intellectualist audience we are so used to in western Europe, but a healthy mix of old and young, of people who are curious about new music. The girl who serves our breakfast in the morning is present, too.

The programme is very varied and carefully composed. It continually starts with a soloist, followed by a duo fighting a musical ‘duel’, after which larger ensembles play. The entire spectrum of 20th century composition is covered. We hear large and sudden intervals in the constructivist music of Elliott Carter’s Canon for three (saxophones).

Kazakhstan composer Rachid Kallimullin adopts a lyric-expressionist tone in his solo for viola A Sinner’s Monologue; Barrie Webb performs Giacinto Scelsi’s meditative Three pezzi; Martin Bresnick’s string quartet betrays Minimalist influences, while elements of pop music can be traced in the pulsating rhythms of Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis and Siberian composer Roman Stolyar.


The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and it is by no means an insult if you have a chat with your neighbour. The bar remains open during concerts, and the audience sits in the dark while the performers are lit by coloured spots. Smoking however is prohibited, and it is touching to see how the crowd squeeze in and out of the hall in the short intervals between performances, for a breath of fresh air or a smoke.

Roman Stolyar performing his own music

Narrative pieces, especially if presented theatrically, are cheered enthusiastically, while the more intellectual works only draw a meagre applause. In Odessa classical music has not yet been turned into a religion, so the people react straight from their hearts. Violist Paul Silverthorne assesses: ‘You have to go out and grab their attention. If you play without inspiration for one second, you lose them. This is very stimulating, for it makes you play far more intensely.’

Climax of the festival is the French saxophone quartet Xasax, who present refreshingly stirring music by composers such as François Rossé and Ernest H. Papier. In the latter’s Axe à quatre the foursome carry out their prescribed dance steps with such alacrity that the audience goes berserk and demand several encores. In their interpretation even Schoenberg swings.


The artistic level of all the performers, from both East and West, is strikingly high. Unfortunately the music from the East, with twenty out of eighty compositions, is slightly underrepresented. This is a shame, for I wouldn’t like to have missed the splendidly nervous string quartet Consequences of Ukrainian composer Alexander Krasotov, nor the lively Sempre Ostinato of Rumanian Cornel Taranu in which a busily gesticulating clarinet is bedded in evocative rustling chords on the strings of a piano.

The same goes for the mysterious-dramatic octet Beyond the white boundary of Ukrainian Ludmilla Samodaieva. She, however says: ‘For us it is important the festival brings music from the West, so we can define our position. Anyway, the share of music from the East is already larger than in the previous editions.’ Integration takes time, after all, and this festival is doing the best it can. When Sunday morning at five o’clock the last note is sounded, the hall is still packed with people. They’ll have to survive for a whole year on what this festival presents in new music. An inconceivable thought for us, spoiled westerners.


Asked what this festival means for the people in Odessa, critic Ute Kilter, who presents her own tv-programme on culture, states: ‘By being confronted with new music and musicians from the West, slowly but inevitably a new way of thinking will seep into people’s consciousness.’

‘We will gradually learn to be more aware of our own responsibilities towards life. This is of immense importance to bring about changes in our politically and socially totally corrupted and mafia-controlled country. Eventually we will therefore become a civilised nation.’

Through the contact with people from the East, we on the other hand, may find our way back to what music is about: emotion and vitality.

In my programme An Ox on the Roof of Sunday 6 March 5 pm I will exclusively play music by Ukrainian composers. After airing the transmission remains available for listening online.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
This entry was posted in archive, background, women composers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Odessa festival 1998: music as a means for emancipation – 2022: democracy Ukraine under attack

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  4. patriciagoodsonpianist says:

    Dear Thea,

    It was so nice to revisit the festival through your article. Thanks for sending it. What an experience that was – even if I was sick for part of it. It`s something I treasure for sure.

    I have been thinking about Karmela, and about others that I met in another festival in Zaporozhia. I can`t get in touch with them.

    It hasn`t even been a week and the world has changed radically. And it`s all only a few hundred kilometres from us.

    I am counting on some good coming out of it – maybe no more banking secrecy, better distribution of weatlh (in US too) with an end to oligarchs, maybe a push to end our reliance on gas and oil and go to renewables. Maybe an opening of hearts…well, a girl can dream. Just…that madman.

    I hope you and Ger are well.

    Hugs, Patricia



    • Thea Derks says:

      I cherish memories of those days too! And how grim the world has become overnight. Let’s hope the Russian people will finally understand that Putin is lying and they are killing their own brother people. I am so outraged and sad.


  5. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Thank you, Thea, for offering these insights into Eastern musicians’ experiences in the late 20th century.

    Liked by 1 person

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