Mary Kuzyk: A Legend

Poster-Girl.1939-litMary Kuzyk: A Legend

Mary Kuzyk was a legend, not only to the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra of the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble, but for many in the music world. As concertmaster of the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra for almost 60 years since its inception in 1956, Mary continued in that role up to the tender age of 94. She fell ill in 2013 and passed away on June 23 of that year. Mary will be lovingly remembered by thousands as a teacher of mandolin and violin, a conductor of choirs and orchestras, a person dedicated to her craft and to the people with whom she worked and performed. Mary will be remembered by all as an outstanding musician and a great inspiration to younger generations, a pillar of strength and dedication in the TMO and Shevchenko Ensemble for almost 60 years.

Mary was born in 1919 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Bill (Vasyl) and Anna Pashka. Like thousands of other children of Ukrainian immigrant families, Mary was introduced at the age of five to the mandolin on which she began her musical education and which became the beginning of a life-long career in music. Classes were held in the Saskatoon hall of the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA), later to become the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, an organization in which Mary taught and participated for many years.

Mary was smitten by the fact that you could make music on an instrument like a mandolin, but another passion for her became the violin. She saved her nickles and dimes (times were not easy on the prairies in the 20s) and by her preteen years she acquired her first violin and started out on an exciting and rewarding career.

From 1929 for the next six years Mary travelled to Regina to compete in the Kiwanis Music Festival, each time performing with distinction. At the age of 10 she received the highest mark in all of Western Canada. There weren’t many opportunities in a small prairie town – which Saskatoon was at the time – to avail oneself of the finest teachers. And with the onset of the Great Depression, even less opportunities were available. So Mary continued to learn as much as she could on her own. She joined any orchestra or group she could find, whether it was symphonic, dance band or folk group.

She was concertmaster, and often soloist, with the Kiwanis Youth Orchestra in Saskatoon, and a member of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra from age 16 for three seasons. Her talents as a performer were soon recognized and Mary was invited to perform at various functions, both in the Ukrainian community and the community at large.  For three years she provided dinner music at the Bessborough Hotel (CPR chain). Mary remembers performing for R. B. Bennett, then Prime Minister of Canada, at a banquet in the hotel when she was only in her teens.

At the age of 16 Mary began teaching violin in the ULFTA. Her very first student was Elsie Babiak (today Elsie Dunlop) who, like many of Mary’s students, became a professional violinist. Elsie’s younger brother, Walter Babiak, a well known Toronto conductor, arranger and composer, as a child was fascinated and inspired by the “lady conductor” as he sat on his mother’s knee at concerts. He later did many orchestrations for the Shevchenko Ensemble and conducted in the absence of Eugene Dolny or Andrew Markow.

Alberta-Tour.39While in Saskatoon, Mary often toured the province with ULFTA groups, performing in Regina and rural areas of Saskatchewan.

In 1938 Mary was selected to attend a six month course, organized by the ULFTA, to train instructors in teaching music and the Ukrainian language. The school was held in Parkdale, a small community just outside Winnipeg, in an orphanage for Ukrainian children who had lost their parents and had no means of support. It was at this school that Mary began to seriously work on her mandolin skills, perfecting them as she had her talent on the violin.

On completing the course, Mary took a teaching post in the ULFTA in Edmonton where she taught Ukrainian language and music and conducted choirs and orchestras.

The cultural groups in Edmonton were very large and extremely active, giving regular performances both in Edmonton and in the province.

Mary recalls that they were the first to present a section of the opera  “Kateryna” in which she played the role of the unfortunate Kateryna. Not only blessed with a talent on the violin and mandolin, Mary also had a wonderful alto voice and performed as a vocalist over the years as well. She recalled how, as a very young girl, she would hide behind the door, wind up the gramophone and sing along with Janet McDonald.

During this time, the orchestra and soloists under Mary’s leadership toured Alberta in an open truck giving concerts in numerous small rural towns raising funds to build a new cultural centre in Edmonton. Also at this time, the ULFTA had a radio program which was broadcast throughout the province. Mary’s group would tour all summer, from town to town, but every second week they had to return to Edmonton to perform on the radio show. They would then head back out on tour.

Gypsy-group-smMary also organized and conducted a group which appeared on a local radio show called “Gypsy Vagabonds” sponsored by Gardy’s Men’s Clothes Shop in Edmonton. She and some of her best students performed on this show.

In 1939 World War II began. In June of 1940, by an Order-in-Council the Canadian government used the War Measures Act to ban a number of progressive organizations, including the ULFTA, on the pretext that these organizations were acting against the Canadian war effort. Although the ULFTA had publicly denounced Hitler’s attack on Poland and warned of the dangers to come, the Labour Temples were nevertheless confiscated by the federal government and even sold off to other organizations.

The Edmonton forces in disarray without a facility, Mary returned to Saskatoon where she soon got involved in programs devoted to raising funds for the war effort.

Giving freely of her time, energy and talent, Mary performed for many community groups, earning warm tributes from such organizations as the Board of Trade, Saskatoon Air Force Auxiliary, the Shriners Ladies’ Auxiliary, the Hadassah Organization of Canada and others.

In 1941 Mary moved with her family to Toronto. Soon after she accepted a teaching position in the Ukrainian community in Kirkland Lake and was soon performing in many concert events. A daily newspaper in Timmins wrote: “The Palace Theatre was jammed to capacity last night when members of the Ukrainian Society in Aid of the Fatherland staged one of the finest concerts ever witnessed in Timmins…The main feature of the concert was the appearance of the guest artist Mary Pashka… well known for her violin talent.”

Mary soon returned to Toronto where she met Tony Kuzyk whom she married in 1943. Much of the activity at that time revolved around the war effort and Mary began to work with a group of young women who called themselves the “Chummy Club”. In addition to knitting socks and other items for the troops overseas, the “Chummy” girls were interested in choral work and Mary began to conduct their choir. She also began to conduct the Women’s Choir of the Federation of Russian Canadians, an orchestra in that same organization and a mixed choir of the local Lithuanian community.

In Toronto Mary also performed on a CBC radio program called “Echoes of the Volga” along with Sid Dolgay, an original member of the Canadian folk song group “The Travelers” and a mando-cello player with the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble.

In the summer of 1945 Mary was asked to go to Edmonton to help prepare cultural groups for participation in the first post-war national AUUC Festival of Song, Music and Dance to be held in Edmonton in 1946. Although pregnant at the time, the dedicated person she was, Mary accepted the responsibility. On her return from the Festival, and after being blessed with the birth of a son Gary, Mary returned to teaching both mandolin and violin, and conducting choirs and orchestras in the AUUC and other communities.

Mary continued to participate in various musical and theatrical productions, led choirs and orchestras in the post-war All Slav concerts and concerts dedicated to Taras Shevchenko which were held in Massey Hall, Eaton Auditorium and other Toronto theatres.

In 1951 when Eugene Dolny returned from two years of intensive study at the Kiev State Conservatory of Music and assumed directorship of the Shevchenko Male Chorus and the Hahilka Women’s Choir, Mary continued to teach music. She organized and conducted a large youth choir which performed in Toronto and Southern Ontario localities. In 1966 she took the conductorship of the Hahilka Choir and remained with them until 1973.

During this period Mary also took a position as itinerant music teacher with the Toronto Board of Education which she held for 14 years until her retirement in 1984.

In 1956 Eugene Dolny revived the exclusive use of mandolins in the string sections of the AUUC orchestra in order to preserve and perpetuate the tradition of mandolin orchestral music in Canada and the orchestra took the name Toronto Mandolin Orchestra. Mary became the orchestra’s concertmaster, the position she held until her death in 2013.

Mary worked very closely with Eugene Dolny and learned a great deal from him. She shared Eugene’s dream of creating a unique Canadian song and dance ensemble that would be not only Ukrainian in character but would reflect Canada’s multicultural heritage by presenting songs and music of the many diverse cultures in Canada.

As the Shevchenko Male Chorus, the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra and later the dance troupe combined forces, the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble evolved and, like Eugene Dolny, Mary dedicated herself to making this Ensemble a vibrant and vital cultural institution in our community.

With the support of Mary and many outstanding volunteers on various committees, the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble experienced unprecedented growth in number and quality of performance in the three decades under Dolny’s talented leadership.

The National Shevchenko Musical Ensemble Guild of Canada was federally incorporated in 1972 as a charitable institution to maintain and operate the Ensemble; from 1969 to 1975 four major original compositions by Canadian composers were commissioned for the Ensemble; the Ensemble performed many times in Massey Hall, at Expo’ 67, in the National Arts Centre, Ontario Place Forum, Hamilton Place, in all major cities of Western Canada on its 1964 tour. It toured extensively throughout Ontario visiting a total of 29 cities.

One of the most notable events was the collaboration in 1980 between the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in which a program of Ukrainian and Russian music was performed twice in Shaw Festival Theatre and once in Welland. A highlight on the program was Mary’s performance, on mandolin with the symphony orchestra, of N. Budashkin’s Concerto for Domra, a challenging solo which Mary performed a number of times with the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra.

In 1970 the Ensemble toured 10 cities in Ukraine with Eugene and Mary at the helm. This would not be Mary’s first visit to the land of her forefathers. In 1954 she had the opportunity of visiting Ukraine to gather choral and orchestral music. After the Ensemble’s tour of 1970, in the early 80s, Mary led a tourist group to Ukraine for InTours Corporation. In 1988 Mary, William Morris, then President of the Shevchenko Guild, and Dance Director Nick Pelowich visited Ukraine to discuss and finalize plans for the Ensemble’s second concert tour in 1989.

After the untimely death of Eugene Dolny in 1983, Mary played a crucial role in the life of the Ensemble by accepting the responsibility of Assistant Conductor (as well as being concertmaster) sharing the podium with the late Andrew Markow.

In 1991when the Shevchenko Ensemble, along with the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, participated in celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Ukrainians in Canada, Mary conducted one full segment of the National Festival held in Massey Hall. This was truly fitting, since of all the conductors in the Ukrainian community, none could equal the number of years of service Mary had given.

Mary-portrait-col-smIn 1993 Mary was awarded the Canada 125 Medal by the Federal Government in recognition of her outstanding contribution for more than half a century to the musical life of our country and in February 2013 she was awarded her second medal – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal – in appreciation of her contribution to the arts in Canada.

Mary’s contribution was more than her talent and performance. She also participated in the leadership of the Ensemble on the Board of Directors, the Executive Committee, Artistic Committee and others.

Mary was not only the anchor and stability of the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra, but a role model of professionalism and dedication. She was a great inspiration to the orchestra and Ensemble, particularly recently as she continued to attend all rehearsals and concerts in her final years.

Mary often said that her greatest enjoyment and reward, in addition to her family, were the thousands of people with whom she had the opportunity to teach, work and perform.

Mary was a very elegant woman with a wonderful sense of humour, a kind, generous and gracious person who earned the love and respect of thousands of students, colleagues and fellow performers, particularly those in the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble and Guild.