Musical Monument: 'Feast or Famine' remembers the victims of avarice

This month’s Kalamazoo Philharmonia and the Bach Festival Chorus performance is personal for Andrew Koehler.

Koehler is the music director for the Philharmonia, associate professor of music at Kalamazoo College, and the child of Ukrainian immigrants. This month, he’s directing a performance of Yevhen Stankovych’s Requiem for Those Who Died of Famine to commemorate the 85th anniversary of a Russian-backed campaign to systematically starve millions of Ukrainians.

The Requiem is being paired with Belshazzar’s Feast, a cantata by British composer William Walton, that tells the story of the Babylonian King Belshazzar who commits sacrilege by using sacred vessels of the Jews to praise the heathen gods.

The title of the joint performance is Feast or Famine, because of the juxtaposition between decadence and starvation. While Koehler directs the Requiem, the cantata will be led by Bach Festival Director Chris Ludwa.

“It’s an interesting parallel,” Koehler said. “We are presenting one (piece) of a more ancient nature and one that is more modern. There’s a beautiful balance between Belshazzar’s decadence as he’s enjoying all manner of delicious things and you contrast that with not having anything for those not in power.”

Prior to the Kalamazoo performance, members of the Philharmonia and the Bach Festival traveled to Chicago for a May 19 show at the Harris Theatre.

Koehler said leaders of the Ukrainian Genocide Famine Foundation - USA, Inc., based in Chicago, invited his musicians and members of the Bach Festival to perform there. A monument dedicated to the memory of the estimated 10 million victims of the Ukrainian Genocide of 1932-1933 is located nearby at a cemetery in Bloomingdale, Ill.

“It was a truly horrifying and vicious event,” Koehler said.

As a prelude to the concert, Koehler is leading a discussion and lecture about the Ukrainian Genocide on June 1 at the downtown branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library. He is sharing his personal and familial relationship to this atrocity. A collection of new pieces created by Kalamazoo Public High School students expressing hunger in the present time is being displayed locally, while a similar collection will be on display in the town of Konotop in Eastern Ukraine.

Through the music of the 95-member Philharmonia and the vocals of the 70-member Bach Festival Chorus, this story will be told in a way unlike any other.

The Philharmonia bills itself as The Orchestra of Kalamazoo College & Community, and its members are a testament to that, representing a broad range of ages and backgrounds. This includes a high school student; an individual in their 80s who has been with the group since its inception in 1994; a retired university professor; and a chemist who works for Pfizer.

A quick audition helps Koehler understand whether the musician in front of him is playing at a level where they can engage with the music played by the Philharmonia, which practices weekly to prepare for its three yearly performances.

“Playing music and playing with others is a source of great joy for these musicians,” Koehler said. “It really enriches their lives and it’s an important creative outlet for them.”

When selecting the music to be played, Koehler looks for excellent pieces that will help his orchestra be appropriately challenged and grow.

“I also look for pieces that will communicate something to our audience and deliver some emotional content that we want to share,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more intellectual or more emotional.”

This is definitely the case with the Stankovych requiem.

“This is an exciting thing for us,” Koehler said. “This collaboration with the Bach Festival Chorus, with whom we have performed many times, opens up new possibilities.”

Feast or Famine
Chenery Auditorium
714 S. Westnedge Ave., Kalamazoo
June 2, 8 p.m., $15-$29