It was the human voice -- his own mother's, actually -- that first led Oleh Krysa to pick up the violin at the age of 6. In Krysa's native Ukraine, the average person is by that tender age already steeped in an extensive repertoire of Ukrainian folk songs. "I became a musician," Krysa explains, "because of Ukrainian folk music. My mother knows many, many Ukrainian songs. Every party, every celebration, every meeting in Ukrainian households finishes with singing. When you're sitting, drinking, and talking, singing is mandatory. So I grew up with those songs."
Too shy to take up singing himself, Oleh has nonetheless spent the better part of his distinguished career using the violin to express the lyricism that listeners normally associate with vocals. For him, the violin is his voice. And his ultimate aim is to reach for, capture, and convey beauty in a language that is immediately and innately understood by the soul -- beyond instrumentation, beyond language. And for five decades, he has done just that on stages all over the world.
Oleh's musical story begins as a toddler singing along with his mother a capella at her side. But his long journey with the violin literally starts with a coin toss. Prompted by neighbors who noticed that he could sing on key, Krysa's parents were convinced that he should attend music school. His parents agreed, but disagreed on the instrument their young son should play: his mother fancied him as a pianist, while his father saw him as a violinist. Needless to say, the coin toss sealed Krysa's lifelong bond with the violin.
From Oleh's earliest days as a student (when his first teacher Konstantin Mikhailov would sneak him into operas to sit hidden from view in the orchestra pit), Krysa took a keen interest in varying his listening pallette. Later, longtime teacher David Oistrakh encouraged the fledgling Krysa to do the same with his playing repertoire. Oistrakh's persistent sense of discovery rubbed off on Krysa and remains with him to this day.
"I know several performers," he explains, "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 them to his later ones, there's a huge difference. To be under his guidance helped a lot. Still, you have to have a strong desire of your own 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 as Oistrakh's assistant, Krysa gladly accepted the position. When Oistrakh passed away two months into the term, the venerated violin teacher'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.'"
While making headway as an up-and-coming concert violinist, 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 such an intimate, small-ensemble 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 solo performing 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. And it's not because I can't do anything else."
"Well," he chuckles, "maybe 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 who also 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 also wishes to acknowledge the helpful role that the Ukrainian Community has played in the development of his career since moving to the States: "When I came to tour the U.S. in 1988, it would have been very difficult to launch a career as a performer and teacher on my own. Thankfully, the Ukrainian communities from several cities in the U.S. and Canada -- including New York, Rochester and Toronto -- came forward and helped me a lot. My Ukrainian 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 steady 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 Ukrainian 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 albums' worth so far. He advises me to this day, and I continue to enjoy our working relationship."