If pianist Vadim Neselovskyi sometimes sounds like he has three hands, there is an explanation for that. “For his solo piano work, he began to utilize the same writing tools that he used for his orchestral work, namely the use of computer-based notation and sequencing programs, then filtering the pieces until he could play them using just his two hands on the piano keyboard.” This little piece of information tucked away in the product description of Neselovskyi’s Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City describes but one aspect of the composer’s working process.
To hear him perform his blend of third-stream acrobatics is impressive enough, but the amount of notes produced isn’t what makes Odesa great. It’s not even the overall musicianship, though that trait is undeniable. Neselovskyi’s ability to tap into a narrative to musically summon something new is what makes the album Odesa so superb. Taking inspiration from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, he takes the listener on a guided tour through the city of his childhood, leaving quite a bittersweet impression along the way.
Neselovskyi was born in the late 1970s when Soviet-occupied Ukraine was experiencing the “Period of Stagnation”. For 45 years, he has seen his beloved city endure quite a lot, from Brezhnev’s rule to the collapse of the Soviet Union to the invasion of Vladimir Putin. Some structures remain, some have crumbled, and some are forever in the process of being rebuilt. “I know that in Western Europe and also in the US, almost everyone has heard of Odesa, and yet not many people really know much about it,” Neselovskyi writes in an introductory essay.
The great thing about Odesa is that it references famous landmarks such as the “Potemkin Stairs” (featured in the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin) but allows Neselovskyi chances to plunge into his personal history. His acceptance to the Odesa Conservatory of Music and an ode to Victor Tsoi titled “My First Rock Concert” spring to mind. It also shines a light on a very ugly massacre in 1941 that Neselovskyi admits to not learning about as a young student. Odesa is a web of the personal, the historical, and the present day, one that manages to remain untangled amid all of the classical runs, blue notes, and pastoral ballads.
The album’s point of entry is at the train station. The brief yet tumultuous “Intro to Odesa Railway Station” may sound like a strange way to start the program with the sustain pedal letting the low notes rumble the way they do. Still, it is an excellent way to break the listener in as “Odea Railway” plays around with a minor-key Eastern European theme like a piece of Black Sea taffy. The rubato comes careening at unexpected moments, and the harmony grows thick with tension as the work progresses. From there, Neselovskyi takes the listener on a solitary walk through the snowy streets on “Winter in Odesa”, sends everyone tumbling down the concrete on “Potemkin Stairs”, encourages all to stop and admire the surroundings on “Acacia Trees”, and then dances off to school at the age at 15 on “Waltz of Odesa Conservatory”.
A miniature suite follows and addresses an enormous black eye on the city’s history. In October of 1941, under Hitler’s orders, Romanian soldiers shot and burned Jewish citizens believed to be anywhere between 25,000 and 34,000. The triptych of “Odesa 1941”, “Intro to Jewish Dance”, and “Jewish Dance” grapples with how a European city known for such a rich Jewish history could watch so many people perish in violence. “Jewish Dance”, in particular, is not a carefree jig meant to be played at wedding receptions. Instead, Neselovskyi takes the Klezmer form and puts it through the modernist wringer a few dozen times, resulting in a piece that pulls apart all recognizable forms of tempo and harmony and reassembles them in an unsettling form that is not entirely without its delights.
“My First Rock Concert” and “The Renaissance of Odesa” are the main signposts for the journey’s end, the former recalling Neselovskyi seeing Victor Tsoi perform at a young age. Tsoi was a politically outspoken artist, a fact that dovetails nicely into Neselovskyi’s plea for a cease-fire and reconstruction. “The Renaissance of Odesa” quietly and cautiously hopes for such a future. It may be soft and slow, but it resolves in its own good time. “But I have faith and hope,” he writes of the piece. “We will restore every building, every street, every village, and every temple – everything that has been destroyed. The closing movement of Odesa is dedicated to all the heroes who gave their lives to protect our freedom and independence.” It takes a lot of gumption to brandish that much optimism, but the same can be said for someone who can conjure such sparkling cityscapes from their piano the way Neselovskyi does.