Inspired by the folk music of his native Ukraine, violinist Oleh Krysa first picked up the violin at the age of 6. By that age, the average Ukranian child is already fluent in a full repertoire of folk songs. “Every party,” explains Krysa, “every celebration, every gathering in Ukranian households finishes with singing. When you're sitting, drinking, and talking, singing is just mandatory. I became a musician because of Ukranian folk music.” Extra inspiration came in the form of Oleh’s mother, whose singing around the house was instrumental in shaping his approach to the violin. Oleh remembers singing along with her as a toddler, and it wasn’t long before neighbors noticed that Oleh could sing on key. They convinced his parents that he should attend music school, where his lifelong journey with the violin literally began on a coin toss.
While Oleh’s mother fancied that he should study to become a pianist, his father wanted him to pick up the violin. Needless to say, fate steered him in the direction of the violin. Meanwhile, though Oleh was too shy to sing in front of people outside his home, he has nevertheless spent the better part of his distinguished career using the violin to express the lyricism and spirit that resonates so distinctly in the human voice. For Krysa, the violin and his voice are one and the same. His ultimate aim, however, is to reach for and somehow bring back a form of beauty that is immediately and innately understood by the soul -- beauty that exists beyond instrumentation, beyond language. For five decades, Krysa has done just that on stages throughout the world.
In his earliest days as a student, Oleh’s first teacher Konstantin Mikhailov used to sneak him into operas and conceal him from view behind the conductor in the orchestra pit -- perhaps the best possible vantage for a young pupil to absorb the music. Those early experiences made a profound impression on him. Later, when studying with venerated master violinist David Oistrakh, Oistrakh encouraged the fledgling Krysa to vary his listening and playing repertoire. Oistrakh's sense of discovery rubbed off on Krysa and remains very alive in him still.
"I know several performers," says Oleh, "who always play the same way. They learn one approach perfectly and repeat it over and over. But my mentor Oistrakh set a great example for me. He was constantly changing his playing, always developing and always searching. If you listen to his old recordings and compare to his later ones, there's a huge difference. To be under his guidance helped a lot. But you have to have your own strong desire to hear new things. I still have it."
In one of the proudest moments of his professional career, Oleh would go on to inherit Oistrakh’s students. Invited by Oistrakh to teach at the Moscow Conservatory in 1974, Oleh gladly accepted the position. Two months into his term, Oistrakh passed away. All of Oistrakh’s students chose to remain with Krysa. “It was certainly a challenge,” he recalls, “but it was especially flattering to look out from Oistrakh’s chair at all these brilliant players and have them say ‘we’ll stay with you.’ Today, I continue to try to pass Oistrakh's tradition to my students.”
Throughout his period of violin study, Krysa also made it a priority to establish himself and sharpen his skills as a chamber musician. "I started," he recalls, "when I was in school in the Ukraine. I was very active as a student and played professionally with the Beethoven quartet, one of the most famous quartets in the world. Chamber music opens you up to an ocean of possibility. It's just endless, the sheer number of pieces. You couldn't play them all if you lived ten times over." Working in an intimate setting, Krysa says, has helped refine his ear: "It's very valuable. In some ways, performing chamber works is just as important, and brings as much to your development as playing in any big symphony does."
Unsurprisingly, Krysa embraces the opportunity to perform contemporary works. "I perform works by contemporary composers quite often," he explains. "Of course I'm very honored whenever a composer dedicates a work to me. I feel very strongly that a performer has to perform modern music. But dividing music into 'modern' and 'classical' can be problematic. Just because something is classical doesn't mean it's good music, and the same applies in our century."
By good, Krysa of course means music that touches the soul. "The goal," he insists, "is not just to be close to the voice, but to touch the soul. And how do you do that? With the beauty and perfection of your instrument. But every voice is different. So the same violin sounds different in different hands. To achieve an ideal sound is an endless process. I'm still in that process. I was not a fanatic about practicing when I was a young boy. I preferred to play soccer. But after 16, after the first time I played with an orchestra, it was an unforgettable event. I started to practice after that, and then when I was at the Moscow Conservatory I began to understand that I cannot survive without the violin."
"It's not," he adds with a chuckle, "because I can't do anything else. Well... partly it’s because I can't!"
Krysa’s accomplishments would not have been possible without the steady support of his wife and musical partner, pianist Tatiana Tchekina, who has accompanied him on most of his recitals and recordings since 1966 and tours with him today. “She’s a very sensitive player,” he enthuses. “She’s also quite demanding! She grew up in a family of singers -- her father was a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre, and her mother was an accomplished singer in her own right -- so her standards are very high, and we’re both happier as a result. I am very lucky to have such a wonderful wife and partner.”
Oleh has three sons, one from his first marriage and two with Tatiana. All three are musicians in their own right. Andrei, the eldest, a violinist, lives in Hamburg, Germany. Peter, also a violinist, lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is a member of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, regularly performs with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and teaches privately. He served as artistic director of Winnipesaukee Chamber Music Festival, and was a member of the Leontovych Quarter with his father. He has recorded for the Russian Disc and TNC labels. Oleh’s youngest son, Taras, also a violinist and conductor. He is director of orchestras at UNLV and director of UNLV’s Henderson Symphony Orchestra. He has made three critically acclaimed recordings for the Brilliant Classics label. Taras has also served as Principal Conductor of the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, which he led on the several European tours with the appearance at the Concertgebouw Hall. When their schedules permit, Oleh enjoys playing with Peter and Taras. Oleh got to celebrate his 60th birthday by performing with them at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory with the celebrated Moscow Soloists Ensemble.
Oleh also wishes to acknowledge the helpful role that the Ukranian Community has played in the development of his career since moving to the States: “When I came to tour the U.S. in 1989, it would have been very difficult to launch a career as a performer and teacher on my own. Thankfully, the Ukranian Communites from several cities in the U.S. and Canada -- including New York, Rochester and Toronto -- came forward and helped me a lot. My Ukranian supporters in New York city sponsored my debut at Carnegie Hall, and I will forever be grateful to them for their generosity in making that highlight of my life possible.” After that successful debut, which was lauded by the New York Times, many doors opened and the engagements began to follow.
“Special mention goes to composer-conductor-pianist-teacher Virko Baley: “He has been a mentor to me, and his help has been vital in helping not only me, but other Ukranian artists make a smooth and prosperous adjustment to life in the States. As president of TNC Recordings, he has championed my body of work and released the majority of my catalog -- 40 cds’ worth so far. He advises me to this day, and I continue to enjoy our working relationship.”