Vadim Neselovskyi Voices Concern for His Ukraine Homeland

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Vadim Neselovskyi performs in Lviv, Ukraine, in 2017.

(Photo: Oleksandr Shamov)

In June 2017, Vadim Neselovskyi played a concert at the Soviet-era Palace of Culture Mettalurgov in Mariupol, Ukraine, a strategic port city on the front line of conflict with Russia since 2014. The audience was a couple hundred Ukrainian soldiers, and Neselovskyi, a passionate artist who loves pianistic intricacy, worried that his music would not appeal to young recruits brought up on simpler fare. But with bombs falling in the background — and emotions running high — it literally struck a chord.

“There were tears,” he recalled in a phone interview from his mother’s home in Dortmund, Germany.

The tears have only multiplied in recent days. On Feb. 24, Russia dramatically escalated its military assault across Ukraine, including Mariupol, where, on March 9, it shelled a children’s hospital. The act was widely condemned as a crime in a war that has changed the lives of most anyone with ties to Ukraine — especially Neselovskyi, a Ukrainian native.

“It is before and after,” he said.

Five days before the interview, Neselovskyi could be found easing into one of the two chairs in his cozy-if-cramped Manhattan studio. Welcoming a visiting writer with Old World courtesy, he seemed both animated and slightly distracted, at once willing to discuss the new pressures on his life and preoccupied by those pressures.

For starters, he said, he has begun giving some of the proceeds from his concerts to charities that benefit Ukrainians. Those gigs have become more numerous because demand has grown for performances of his prescient piano suite Odessa, a work inspired by his memories of growing up in that now-threatened Ukrainian port city.

His relationships with students have also changed, becoming more intimate even as a measure of confusion creeps in. At Berklee College of Music, where he is an associate professor, young musicians routinely greet him with empathetic hugs and slightly disoriented stares — the latter signifying a realization, he said, that their generation might have to contemplate the threat of nuclear war.

The change in his work with students extends to those abroad. In the days before the current bombing campaign started, he was preparing to address competitors in the second annual International Music Bridge competition, an online event based in Ukraine for which he serves as judge. He was also making plans to initiate exchanges between Ukrainian and German jazz students. All that has been put on hold.

Neselovskyi himself was a student at the Odessa Conservatory when, as a 17-year-old Jewish refugee, he left the vestiges of Soviet Ukraine for Germany. Now 44, the holder of a German passport and an American green card, he is sensitive to the ironies attendant to a 21st-century European war, starting with his immediate surroundings. Living on the Upper West Side amid the abundance of a musician’s trade —MIDI keyboards, a melodica, an upright piano, an acoustic guitar, random musical gadgets — he finds it is his phone that commands his attention.

Well-connected in Europe, Neselovskyi has been using that phone to help Ukraine’s music community during this struggle. As he prepared to fly to Germany for six gigs this month, he was busily arranging for the movement of medical supplies from Germany through Poland, where his musician contacts would transfer them across the border to Ukrainian soldiers. Neselovskyi proudly shows an Instagram post of his nephew, Igor Neselovskyi — who has been recruited to help — smiling broadly in front of a car that carried supplies bound for Ukraine.

Neselovskyi is also part of an informal network trying to help Ukrainian musicians seek refuge outside the country. The prominent conductor Natalia Ponomarchuk, a champion of Neselovskyi’s music, had been “on the run,” he said, adding that, she sheltered from the bombs with her elderly mother before leaving Ukraine for Poland, where she planned to meet a bassist friend and drive on to Germany.

Ponomarchuk, who was the conductor at the 2017 Mariupol concert, can be seen in a YouTube video conducting Neselovskyi as soloist with the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra in a 2019 performance of his elegiac signature piece “Last Snow.” The piece, built on delicately executed melodic leaps that fall on the ears with the kind of evanescence suggested by its title, has proven a potent disquisition on the power of memory in various versions — from duo (with Russian horn player Arkady Shilkloper) to quintet (with vibraphonist Gary Burton).

But the 2019 performance, held in Kyiv’s National Philharmonic Hall with an orchestration by Neselovskyi, now seems the most compelling. Its intimation of grust — the Russian word for sadness — has acquired a newfound immediacy as the orchestra’s members are reduced to playing in the Kyiv subways at night. Those subways have become de facto bomb shelters. As it happens, “Grust” is the title of the piece that won Neselovskyi the 2010 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Composers Competition.

For all the grust enveloping Ukraine, Neselovskyi’s most personal concern is reserved for Odessa, his beloved hometown on the Black Sea. Neselovskyi, who was granted admission to its famed conservatory at 15 and lived through the days when jazz CDs were a black-market commodity there, has been in constant touch with friends as they fortify the city with sandbags in anticipation of a Russian attack.

“They are as united as ever,” he said. “At the same time, there is a farewell look in their eyes.”

That look is suggested by the musical images conveyed in Odessa. The suite’s centerpiece movement, “Potemkin Stairs,” delivers swirls of cascading notes that trippingly evoke the desperation depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1915 propaganda film Battleship Potemkin. In it, czarist soldiers chase the proletariat down Odessa’s monumental outdoor stairway — paralleling, Neselovskyi said, the Russian soldiers now chasing Ukrainians into bomb shelters and out of the country. The movement, the third of 10 in the suite, presents Neselovskyi’s compositional acuity and improvisational agility at their most intoxicating.

“October 1941,” meanwhile, offers those attributes at their most devastating. The first part of a three-part, Jewish-themed suite within a suite, it finds Neselovskyi mounting a thunderous attack on the bottom of the keyboard — one that recalls both the World War II massacre of Jews in Ukraine on the date of the title and the Russians’ March 1 bombing of Europe’s largest mass grave for victims of the Holocaust, Babyn Yar, in Kyiv.

“It’s the darkest music I’ve ever written,” Neselovskyi said.

Neselovskyi was quick to point out that the suite also lets in light, if in measured doses. Its epilogue, “The Renaissance Of Odessa,” is a meditative take on the city’s 21st-century renewal. The movement, according to a draft of his liner notes, is “dedicated to all the heroes who gave their lives to protect our freedom and independence.”

“There still is hope,” he said.

Both sides of the story will get a musical airing. After the March dates in Germany, Neselovskyi will perform excerpts from Odessa at an April 1 benefit organized by John Zorn at the Brooklyn space Roulette. On April 30, he will play the entire suite twice at Sendesaal, in Bremen, Germany, where, in August 2020, he recorded it at the hall’s official reopening after the pandemic lockdown. He said that the release of a CD on Sunnyside, originally scheduled for September, may be moved up.

The day before the Sendesaal concerts, a panel discussion touching on the growth of Ukraine’s jazz scene was planned with the Ukrainian Cultural Institute. The panel was still up in the air in mid-March as the war threatened to waylay some of its participants. But whatever the panel’s fate, Neselovskyi expressed cautious faith that its theme would remain relevant after the hostilities ended.

“We hope everyone will survive,” he said, “and the scene will be restored and blossom.” DB



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