…you can feel the land in the sound. It’s impossible not to see the barren plains or feel the cold passion of the raging snowstorm.
In November 2022, Markiyan Melnychenko takes the Llewellyn Hall stage to perform Sibelius’ fiendishly difficult D minor violin concerto.
Here, he reflects on its nuances and his own musical journey in conversation with Jessica Cottis.
Jessica Cottis: What drew the young Markiyan Melnychenko to the violin?
Markiyan Melnychenko: I’m from a family of musicians, so I was surrounded by music from birth. My mother is a pianist, my uncle is a cellist in the Ukrainian National Opera Orchestra, and my grandmother was a violinist in the Lviv Opera Orchestra in Ukraine for over 30 years. My mother never wanted to push me into playing music but she was left with little choice, given my consistent nagging, and at age five I began to learn the piano.
As I grew older and my passion for music became clear, I started my second instrument – the violin, for the very unromantic reason that my mother wanted me to have more options for finding a job in the future. With time, I started to develop a stronger affinity for the violin, mesmerised by the colours of its sound, and slowly, without realising it, the violin became an inseparable part of my life.
JC: Many violinists would say Sibelius’ D minor violin concerto is the most fiendishly difficult and exhilarating of all violin concertos. Is it?
How do you approach this work?
MM: It is certainly both fiendishly difficult and exhilarating! All of the great violin concerti have their own difficulties. With Beethoven’s concerto, for example, the pristine nature of the writing and the style means that you are very exposed and any imperfections are difficult to hide. Tchaikovsky was not a violinist and so his concerto is written in a way that is not very idiosyncratic to the natural movements of violin technique, which means that, although it sounds glorious, it is extremely uncomfortable to play.
For Sibelius’ concerto, in addition to the technical challenges, there is also the challenge of crafting the sound world of the piece. The warmth of humanity must be tempered by the austerity of the Scandinavian climate. The darkness and restless energy must intimidate without resorting to open violence. For all its fire, this concerto has a lot of subtlety and if these elements are not balanced it can lose a lot of what makes it special.
With time, I started to develop a stronger affinity for the violin, mesmerised by the colours of its sound…
JC: As a composer, Sibelius was deeply influenced by the vastness of nature that surrounded him in northern Finland.
How does that further impact how you see the work?
MM: It’s fascinating to see the impact that a composer’s cultural, historical and geographical environments have on their musical voice. The human capability for warmth, nobility and love remains the same no matter what continent somebody lives on, creating a common thread to all the great music that we play, and yet, the external expressions of these ideas are heavily influenced by our surroundings.
With Sibelius and his violin concerto, you can feel the land in the sound. It’s impossible not to see the barren plains or feel the cold passion of the raging snowstorm. The concerto also tells a story about the hardiness of the people who survive in such unforgiving settings, especially in the grounded energy of the third movement. Exploring these images is very important because they help inform as to what makes Sibelius’ compositional voice unique and how to then make his music come to life.
JC: I’m always completely transfixed by the urgent melancholy of the opening. What are you thinking when you play this? Do you have a favourite moment?
MM: Urgent melancholy – that’s a very good way of putting it. Throughout the stillness of the opening there remains an unsettled feeling, as if the calm could give way at any moment to a tempest. My mind is always focused on feeling the cold heat grow with every bar, while trying to keep a firm rein on it so that too much isn’t given away too soon.
My favourite moment is probably when Sibelius takes the violin into its lowest register for the first time. The dark growl of the G string has such a strikingly primal, menacing quality to it and it’s the first open hint of what is to come.
JC: You have such a fascinating and varied career, as soloist, chamber musician and pedagogue. It must have been an honour to play with the Eastman Quartet at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.
Can you share with us a bit about that?
MM: That experience is definitely a lifelong memory. First of all, the Capitol building provides a fascinating insight into American history and a particularly interesting experience, for me, was walking up a narrow, worn and windy stone staircase which was the same one used by the British when they burned the building during the war of 1812.
Also, we received a behind-the-scenes look at what happens at an event of state, including moments that don’t go exactly to plan!
At one point, for example, (then) Vice-President Joe Biden had his entrance announced, the military band provided a fanfare and everyone stood waiting for him to walk through the doors. He got delayed somewhere, though, and as everyone stood there, expectantly, the nervous silence began to grow longer and longer. Eventually an official leaned over to our group and whispered desperately – ‘Play something!!’ We quickly started the music and it was as if a spell had been broken – tension disappeared and conversation resumed. The Vice-President eventually made his entrance and all was well, but it seemed exactly like something out of a movie.
Ukrainian-Australian violinist Markiyan Melnychenko is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music in New York and the Australian National Academy of Music.
He is a winner of national and international competitions including Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Romantics competition and the Oleh Krysa Competition in Ukraine, has been the recipient of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition Development Prize and a 2019 Churchill Fellowship.
He has held the position of Lecturer In Violin at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne and is currently Principal First Violin with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.
He has performed in New York’s Alice Tully Hall at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, and in 2013 was selected to perform at the US Capitol as part of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.
Markiyan appears regularly, as a concerto soloist, with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes recital series and the Australian Digital Concert Hall’s streamed concerts and has wide-ranging experience as a chamber music player.
© Weaver Artist Management 2022