Paris to Kyiv
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Ukrainian folk roots
feed modern branches
Alexis Kochan and Paris to Kyiv


Alexis Kochan's music has taken her, most recently, to a wooden mountain church in Lublin, Poland, a 200-year-old stone chapel in Warsaw, and this past weekend, to the 150-year-old Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto. If you called it the Paris to Kyiv tour unplugged, it wouldn't be entirely facetious. The ensemble, who specialize in contemporizing Ukrainian folk music under the direction of Kochan, trimmed down from the five musicians heard on their most recent recording, Prairie Nights and Peacock Feathers, to an acoustic trio for their Poland tour and this past Sunday's "winter cycle" concert.

Appropriately named, given both the song selections, rife with wintry references, and the less-than-toasty interior of Holy Trinity. the latter meant much of the attentive audience listened with coats draped around their shoulders, but some-how that only added to the pleasurable sense of being at a far remove from the hustle of Yonge and Dundas, an illusion created by the calm and grace of the venue and Kochan's remarkable serenity as a performer.

For the past decade, Winnipeg-based Kochan has created music that blends ancient Ukrainian songs, mostly connected to ritual, with touches of jazz and contemporary North American folk styles. Her pristine voice and musical tradition have the kind of allure, were they so directed, to perhaps harvest attention similar to Celtic folk artist Loreena McKennitt.

But it seems Kochan's chosen a more challenging path. In performance her voice always embraced — even at its most aggressive it was somehow honeyed at the centre — but instrumental breaks grew tense and angular in the height of improvisation, at times at odds with that vocal delicacy.

All of which was not without its lighter moments — viola player Richard Moody elicited chuckles when one solo turned into George Gershwin's Summertime. Another, a Jean-Luc Ponty-esque diversion, seemed to baffle, however and was equally incongruent with the essence of Kochan's music. The subtler tensions Moody created when in a backing role — as on the eerie fable Pavochka — were more satisfying. Most satisfying were the voices of Kochan and the fine bandura player, Julian Kytasty, when in duet. Together their voices soared, intertwined, became a choir of two.

The name of her ensemble, Paris to Kyiv, apparently reflects Kochan's feeling that the Ukrainian capital could have been the Paris of Eastern Europe, were it not for the twists of fate historically. Her music is intended to give the richness of those Ukrainian musical traditions new life, and in that she is succeeding most admirably.

Special to The Globe and Mail