For Kalamazoo Philharmonia conductor Andrew Koehler, when the orchestra and the Bach Festival Chorus present the North American premiere of “Requiem for Those Who Died of Famine,” it will be more than a performance — it will be personal.
In the early 1930s in Ukraine, one of Koehler’s maternal great-grandfathers was starving, so he ate a few kernels of wheat from what had been his own farm. As a result, he was put in jail by Soviet authorities and, as far as the family knows, ended up dying there.
The farm had been taken by the Soviet state during the collectivization process that followed the Russian Revolution, Koehler says, and his great-grandfather and other Ukrainian farmers were told: “The farm is no longer yours. It all goes to the state, and the state determines what you will get. If you don’t meet the (production) quota, you won’t get anything.”
In 1932, the Soviets thought Ukrainians were intentionally sabotaging the harvest and brutally punished them for it, exporting grain even as people starved to death, Koehler recounts.
“They were opening cupboards, looking for grain anywhere,” he says. “You could be shot on sight (for keeping any of the harvest) or sent to prisons. The people tried to get to the cities because the cities had more food than the villages. They (the Soviets) stopped the trains so people couldn’t go to the cities. There were reports of cannibalism and other horrors.”
Millions of Ukrainian people died of starvation in the Soviet-induced famine of 1932 and 1933 that came to be known as the Holodomor, meaning “extermination by hunger.” Other Ukrainians died from other forms of Soviet aggression. Many of Koehler’s ancestors were among those who died. Like the farmer on his mother’s side, a paternal great-grandfather was also jailed by Soviet authorities and never heard from again, says Koehler.
Now, more than 80 years later, Koehler will shine a spotlight on the Holodomor in two performances by the Kalamazoo Philharmonia and the Bach Festival Chorus. They will perform the North American premiere of “Requiem for Those Who Died of Famine” May 19 in Chicago, and on June 2 they will present the requiem to Kalamazoo in a Bach Festival performance at Chenery Auditorium.
The requiem was written in 1992 by Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych and incorporates the words of Ukrainian poet Dmytro Pavlychko. “It’s remarkable that it was created the year after the Soviet Union dissolved,” Koehler says, noting that the piece includes religious themes and “names the crimes that were committed.”
“None of that would have been possible even a few years before,” Koehler says, because a totalitarian state would not have allowed that freedom of expression.
Musically, “there’s a pretty fascinating range of idioms at work in the requiem,” says Koehler, an associate professor of music at Kalamazoo College. It mixes canonical classical themes with orthodox religious chants, veering between the secular and the sacred. It has passages of “violence and roughness,” but also passages of “beautifully austere simplicity.” It also includes what are called aleatoric passages, where the notes are not written out and the musicians play at will. “This is an assertion of the individual against the hierarchical leader,” Koehler says.
The Holodomor, which occurred under Stalin’s rule, is not as widely known a tragedy as the Holocaust, but in some ways it bears a resemblance to the Holocaust, Koehler says. “It was carried out with such intentionality, such cruelty.”
Estimates of the number of people who died in the Holodomor vary widely, from 3 million to 14 million. And even though those who died in the Holodomor were overwhelmingly ethnic Ukrainians, there’s some debate, he explains, as to whether the Holodomor can be classified as a genocide, since Stalin also killed or mistreated people from other groups.
Koehler’s mother’s parents fled from Ukraine after someone tipped them off that authorities were planning to seize them and most likely execute them. His father’s parents fled to Austria from Ukraine, and, despite having lost many relatives to starvation, Koehler’s grandmother wanted to return to their homeland at some point, but his grandfather said they would be shot on sight. “I think the strife over that led to their divorce,” Koehler says. His grandfather stayed in Austria, but his grandmother immigrated to the U.S.
Koehler, who grew up in Philadelphia, didn’t meet his paternal grandfather until he was in fourth grade. “He called my father and said, ‘I’m your father, and I’d like to talk to you.’ He died about 10 years after that.”
Koehler says he didn’t learn a lot about the Holodomor when he was growing up. As an adult, though, Koehler has been very interested in Ukrainian history and culture. He has traveled to Ukraine several times and conducted there. When he lived in Chicago before moving to Kalamazoo 11 years ago, he served briefly on the board of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. For the upcoming requiem performances, he transliterated the Ukrainian text into Latin letters. “It was a lot of work but it was personally meaningful and rewarding for me to do that,” he says.
Now that the 38-year-old Koehler has a son, born in January, he will talk with him about his Ukrainian heritage as he grows up and maybe even teach him the language. His own parents were young when they came to the U.S. — his mother was 5 and his father 12 — and “they felt trapped between two worlds,” he says.
“My parents wanted to distance themselves to some extent (from Ukraine), but I, as the next generation, want to come back and reconnect,” Koehler says.
Even so, his parents plan to attend the Chicago performance of “Requiem for Those Who Died of Famine.”
Neither they nor Koehler have forgotten what their ancestors endured. “She’d hate for me to say this, but my mother is the kind of person who will get a spatula to make sure the last remnants of a jar are cleaned out and then use her finger to clean the spatula,” Koehler says. “I’m absolutely that person now. If something in the fridge is on the verge (of spoiling), I try to use it. And if I make someone dinner and they don’t eat all of it, it really bothers me.“