Anna Ralo and Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Alexey Ralo
There is a rapid development of percussion globally, led by many factors including international festivals, contests, training courses, and master classes all around the world. However, not every country is actively involved in this process, and in this context, an international contest of percussionists in Ukraine is quite a remarkable event in the cultural life of both this country and the percussion community as a whole.
On September 27–30, 2019, Odessa, Ukraine hosted the Odessa Percussion Fest, the first international festival-contest of percussion in the country. The hosting city is located in the South of Ukraine and is one of Europe's trading, economic, and cultural centers. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the city was home for outstanding composers, musicians, writers, artists, scientists, and inventors including Guzikov, List, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Oistrakh, Gilels, Aivazovsky, Kostandi, Mickiewicz, Pushkin, Gogol, Twain, Mechnikov, Utochkin, Korolev, and many others. It is quite natural that such a city as Odessa, with its history and rich cultural legacy would host an event of this kind.
Historically, first in the USSR and then in Ukraine, no contest or festival that would be devoted to percussion performance was organized. All percussion contests used to be carried out only within a restricted nomination of "percussion," which usually just accompanied major nominations at the different contests and festivals of winners. Since the 1990s, in Ukraine, there were several similar contests of brass and percussion performers, hosted by Lviv, Rivne, and Chernivtsi.
However, the idea of establishing a festival-contest for percussion performers only has long been cherished. It has grown from the impressions gained at various international competitions and masterclasses held in Europe as well as from direct communication with acknowledged American and European musicians and pedagogues. This resulted in the creation of a festival-contest, which is unparalleled today in Ukraine. It included a competition, masterclasses, several concert events, and a scientific-and-practical conference, covering the issues of history, theory, and practice of percussion.
One of the distinguishing features of Odessa Percussion Fest was the members of its jury. This was the first time in the history of percussion contests in Ukraine when the jury was represented by renown professors of the higher educational institutions and soloists from the USA and Europe: Dr. Adam Blackstock, prominent marimba soloist, associate professor of percussion studies at Troy University (USA), chair of the PAS Keyboard Percussion Committee and member of the PAS Percussion Ensemble Committee; Dr. Piotr Sutt, renown percussionist and marimba soloist, head of the percussion department, full professor of Academy of Music in Łódź, percussion and chamber music instructor at the High School of Music in Gdańsk and the National Consultative Centre for Percussion, and member of the PAS; and Dr hab. Stanislaw Halat, composer, arranger, percussionist, drummer, associate professor in the Institute of Music in Maria-Curie Sklodowska University in Lublin, author of over 200 compositions for percussion solo and percussion ensembles, coordinator of the European program Erasmus+, and vice-principal of Karol Szymanowski Complex of State Music Schools No 4 in Warsaw.
All members of the jury.
In the jury, Ukraine was represented by Dr. Anna Ralo, a laureate of the international contests in Italy, Serbia, Moldova, and Ukraine, and professor of percussion at the Department of Music and Instrumental Training of the South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K. D. Ushynsky (art director of the festival-contest). The Odessa Percussion Fest jury was chaired by Dr. Alexey Ralo, the soloist, scientist, teacher acknowledged in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Ukraine, laureate of the international music contests in Italy and Germany, and associate professor of Department of Orchestral Wind and Percussion Instruments at the Odessa National A. V. Nezhdanova Academy of Music.
This project was due in part to the comprehensive support of the Department of Culture and Tourism of Odessa City Council, the South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K. D. Ushynsky, and the Odessa National A. V. Nezhdanova Academy of Music. The venues of the event included the most prestigious sites in the city: The Grand Hall of Odessa Oblast Philharmonic Theater and the Golden Hall of Odessa State Literature Museum. The contest auditions took place in the Children's Music School #3, one of the oldest educational institutions in Odessa founded as early as in 1930. Today, it provides the most favorable environment for percussion training for children of different ages in Ukraine.
Day one of the contest began with a solemn opening ceremony in the Golden Hall of the Literature Museum. On this day, contest judges Adam Blackstock and Piotr Sutt performed their concert programs and were warmly welcomed by the Odessa audience.
On day two, the contest auditions for different age groups began: first (ages 6–9), second (ages 10–13), third (ages 14–17), and fourth (over 18). With the contest format being unprecedented for Ukraine, the contestants themselves could choose the pieces they were going to perform. Participants could perform their program on a variety of percussion instruments, excluding timpani (i.e., marimba, xylophone, snare drum, drum set, and multi-percussion).
The youngest category included applicants who had only made their first steps in the art of percussion, but many were still notable. One contestant was Daria Zaika, an 8-year-old from Odessa. Despite her young age, her performance was light and flexible. The judges appreciated the two-mallet technique she displayed while playing the marimba. In the second age category, the first-prize winner and one of the most memorable contestants was Supel Natan from Poland. His skillful "tremolo" technique with various dynamic shades on the snare drum impressed both the judges and the audience. In the third category, there was a battle among the participants from different cities of Ukraine; one could observe a similar battle between the members of the jury when they were discussing the participants of this category. The well-deserved second position went to Myroslav Vasyliuk, the contestant from Zhytomyr, Ukraine, who showed his commitment to percussion, creativity, and emotion. The fourth category became one of the most intriguing parts of the audition, where the students of secondary and higher education music institutions from France, China, Poland, and Ukraine were competing. Each performance was captivating, and each contestant represented a specific performing school with its peculiarities and traditions. The most remarkable contestant, according to the judges, was a Poland-born participant from France, Bartlomiej Sutt, who won the Grand Prix of the Odessa Percussion Fest. The technique and sound production he demonstrated in his performance on marimba and vibraphone made a great impression upon all the judges and the audience.
When the contest audition was over, the Odessa Percussion Fest judges Adam Blackstock, Piotr Sutt, and Stanislaw Halat each presented a masterclass. They shared their best practices with the contest participants and instructors and presented the methods and approaches they widely apply in their teaching and performing activities. Sutt presented his own exercises to warm up muscles with no instrument involved, which could be applied by any percussionists in their playing practices. Moreover, he shared his training techniques that could be of great use for the teaching practices of percussion teachers at music schools and schools of Arts. Halat presented several exercises to improve the double-stroke technique on the snare drum, and Blackstock conducted an engaging masterclass on marimba, emphasizing the spot of the stroke on the bar and its effect on how the instrument sounds.
On September 29, the Grand Hall of Odessa Oblast Philharmonic Theater became the venue for the award ceremony of the laureates and participants, teachers, accompanists, and judges, where they received the commemorative diplomas and presents, along with the gala-show of Odessa Percussion Fest. The gala-show included the most noticeable contestants and featured solo programs and collaborative performances by the judges. One performance was by Piotr Sutt and Anna Ralo with the percussion ensemble of South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K.D. Ushynsky and Odessa National Music A.V. Nezhdanova Academy. The ensemble was led by Alexey Ralo.
Professor Adam Blackstock presenting the diploma of the laureate Gleb Mikhalyuchenko
The last day of the event on September 30 brought about the first international scientific-and-practical conference on history, theory, and practice of percussion. There, the contest judges, as well as the teachers of primary and secondary educational institutions of Ukraine, presented their reports. The issues covered in their academic and methodological pieces of research were so resonating that presentations often ended up with heated discussion between the speakers and the audience.
Piotr Sutt’s speech at the Scientific Practical Conference
During the last warm days of September 2019, Odessa turned into a pearl of percussion. Odessa Percussion Fest accomplished its mission: to discover and support talented children and youth and improve the creative and performing levels of percussionists. The participants of the Festival-Contest could demonstrate their skills of percussion playing, while their mentors enjoyed the fruitful creative communication. Despite a very busy schedule, each participant explored extensive information about performance on different percussion instruments and was greatly impacted. Piotr Sutt said of the Gala Show, "Every percussionist should feel like a royal, and should be proud of being a part of this beautiful world of percussion instruments!"