Canadian Composers Interview Series with Larysa Kuzmenko

In our new blog series, Canadian Composers Interview with ACNMP board member and organist Matthew Boutda, we endeavour to illuminate the artistic process of select working composers from across Canada.

Larysa Kuzmenko is a Toronto-based composer, pianist, and Juno nominee. Her works have been published by Boosey and Hawkes, commissioned, performed, broadcast, and recorded by many outstanding musicians all over the world. Some prominent ensemble and soloists who have performed her works include: the Toronto Symphony Orchestra directed by Peter Oundjian and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra directed by Bramwell Tovey, the Gryphon Trio, flutist Susan Hoeppner, pianists Anton Kuerti and Christina Petrowska-Quilico, and cellist Shauna Rolston.

Her works demonstrate a strong affinity towards the mainstream of classical music. She imbues her music with a strong melodic sense, and a firm rooting in traditional, albeit extended tonal processes. She is currently on staff at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, where she teaches composition and piano.

Matthew: Would you mind sharing a few words about your personal and musical background?

Larysa: I was born in Toronto, in a car, on Bathurst street, in front of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church, during a snow storm. I grew up in Misssissauga. I had 45 rabbits, three chickens, and two cats. I love animals, especially cats. When I was four years old, my parents bought an old piano for my sister, who was 14 at the time. I was drawn to this instrument. I just loved it. I will never forget the time when my parents first discovered my musical talent. My parents would grocery shop every Friday. My sister was told to practice her piano pieces during their shopping time. One Friday, when they returned home, they were happy to hear, what they thought, was my sister practicing her pieces. When they walked into the room, they were astonished to see that it was I who was playing the piano, not my sister. I was playing her pieces by ear. They realized that I should start piano lessons as soon as possible. I studied piano with Antonina Yaroshevich-Manko. She was my mentor. When I was 16, she passed away from ovarian cancer. I was devastated. I was going to quit music all together. My high school music teacher insisted that I continue. He made arrangements for me to study piano with Clifford Poole, and composition with Dr. Sam Dolin at the RCM. I was very fortunate to have studied with such great teachers. After graduating from high school, I was accepted into the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, where I studied composition with another favourite teacher of mine, Oskar Morawetz.

Matthew: How often do you compose now?

Larysa: I compose almost every day, especially when I have a commission, with a looming deadline. There are times when I would write 8 hours a day to meet a deadline. On days when I teach at U of T, I would come home from school, and start writing into the wee hours of the morning.

Matthew: Are you currently working on a new composition?

Larysa: I am currently writing a double concerto for violin, piano and string orchestra. This work will be premiered in Toronto by Marc Djokic, Christina Quilico-Petrowska, and Sinfonia Toronto in November of 2019. I also have recently been commissioned by the Calgary Symphony Orchestra to write an orchestral work celebrating Beethoven’s birthday. This work will be premiered on February 14, 2020.

Matthew: How can more people be exposed to Canadian music?

Larysa: The RCM books publish some Canadian works, so students are exposed to them at a young age. I remember when I was in grade 10 RCM piano, I played a work by Oskar Morawetz. I loved the piece. I was excited to find out that he was a Canadian composer. I wanted to know more about him and to hear more of his music. I even bought a recording of his piano concerto performed by Anton Kuerti. I play works by Canadian composers in my classes at U of T. I also suggest students go to the CMC to purchase scores or recordings. It would be nice hear more Canadian music broadcast on the radio. Years ago, there was CBC radio show called “Two New Hours’. Every Sunday, they would broadcast works by Canadian composers. Unfortunately, that show folded.

Matthew: Why should we grow this awareness for Canadian Music?

Larysa: I think we should be very proud of the talent that we have here in Canada. The world should be aware of this, and most are not. I found it quite sad when I asked a student who was auditioning for the composition program at U of T if he could name me a Canadian composer. He named Aaron Copland! Now that’s unfortunate!

A number of Larysa’s works are included in our Contemporary Showcase Syllabus including this iconic solo piano work ‘In memoriam: To the Victims of Chornobyl’.