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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Roman KOFMAN: “When I perform, I feel responsible to the composer who wrote the music”

29 January, 2013 - 10:26

As a reminder, following the maestro’s example, a beautiful tradition emerged: on New Year’s Eve the capital’s music lovers go to listen to Farwell Symphony by Joseph Haydn performed by one of the best European orchestras, the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra. On the last but one day of 2012, the Haydn concert with candles enjoyed a full house at the National Philharmonic Society. And on January 25 Roman Kofman offered to set out on a delightful music journey via Northern Express, and a guest from Russia, a renowned pianist Eliso Virsaladze came to join the Ukrainian orchestra.

It should be noted that conductor, writer, poet, director, violinist, composer, pedagogue, and philosopher Roman Kofman is an astonishing person. He is able to turn music or a word in such a way that the entire world will sound anew to the audience and readers. Apparently, it is connected with the peculiarity of the profession – to hear simultaneously every instrument and entire orchestra on the stage. One can tell non-stop about his music projects, books, and aphorisms. So, working as General Music Director of the city of Bonn, Germany, the maestro has headed for five years the Bonn Opera Orchestra and Bonn Symphony Orchestra, with which he recorded Franz Liszt’s oratorio Christus (the Echo Klassik Prize) and all 15 symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich, staged 10 operas, including Modest Mussorgsky’s Sorochyntsi Fair, which is rarely performed in Europe. He was awarded with German Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and following Kofman’s suggestion the Bonn Symphony Orchestra was named after Beethoven.

His author’s cycles of concerts “Roman Kofman and his friends,” “All symphonies by Beethoven,” “All symphonies by Schubert,” “Great names,” “All symphonies by Mozart” (for the first time in Ukraine all 41 symphonies by Mozart were performed by a single orchestra during one concert season), “Ukrainian avant-garde,” and International Festival “A week of High Classics with Roman Kofman” are unique events in Ukraine’s cultural life. He authors such books as Nuances; Face of Land; The Book of Oblivion; Conductor and Orchestra, or 100 unnecessary recommendations for young conductors; Pastoral symphony, or How I was living with Germans.

This season Kofman is presenting in the Lysenko Column Hall the extraordinary music projects, which right away became the topic of our conversation.


The Kyiv audience became greatly interested in two of your projects, whose programs are distinguished by the close touch to the world classical literature.

“The project ‘What is our life? A game!’ includes the music works connected with Pushkin’s novelette The Queen of Spades, Dostoevsky novel’s Gambler, and Bulgakov’s play Running. But it is not the connection with literature that determines the essence of the project, rather it is the title. Game stands apart from music, it is higher than the music, a game as a socio-psychological category and living state of a person, it does not simply intrude into our life from time to time, but also pierces it in such a way that we come to play non-stop, each time a new role. In the project ‘Geniuses and dilettantes’ there can also be traced a connection with literary works: symphonic poem by Richard Strauss Thus Spoke Zarathustra is based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s texts. But the main idea is the presence of dilettante composers, such as Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, Aleksander Griboyedov, Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, in music, and their music achievements: apart from being talented litterateurs, they also were composers, albeit of various classes and training. I wanted to show to people the works they have never heard, and for many people it was a revelation that Leo Tolstoy has one music piece, whereas Nietzsche has many, and so on. Pasternak was going to become a composer, in a letter to his acquaintance he writes: ‘When I refused from music (he was at age 19 then), it was an amputation.’ It was a very hard experience for him, but he made his choice, which should be respected.”

Where will you drive your Northern Express to on January 25?

“The concert will include the works of composers from northern countries, or the compositions dedicated to the North, which takes a special place in the mentality of our audience. We treat these peoples with respect and estrangement: the Teutonic Knights, the Battle of the Ice, ‘Hymn of Varangian guest’ from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko have stuck in our mentality. Or ‘the Nordic character’ is a notion one cannot properly explain. I can assert that the concert audience in the North is no less, or even more, passionate and impulsive than that in the South. And the music of northern composers is no less, and often even more, emotional than in the south, it is just that the way of expression differs – via inner tension, inner emotional world. And this has a much stronger effect on me.

“The program is opened by Helios Overture by the greatest Danish composer Carl Nielsen. His works are rarely performed in our country, and he has wonderful symphonies, a violin concert, a clarinet concert, which is on all repertoire lists in the West. The overture sings of the sunrise and the heavenly body itself, which in the northern countries has an idea-creation meaning. It is followed by fragments from Grieg’s suite Per Gynt, then there will be two fragments from the ballet The Bronze Horseman by Reinhold Gliere: a waltz and the hymn to the great city of the North. Besides there will be Grieg’s piano concert (soloist: Eliso Virsaladze) and Finlandia, a symphonic poem by Jean Sibelius.”

Please, tell me the secret, what will be your next concert in the series of new projects?

“The February project ‘Transformation’ includes the works which have undergone transformation. Those are Chakonne by Bach-Rakhlin and Fugue-Ricercata by Bach-Webern, i.e., Bach’s works transformed from piano to orchestra works by Natan Rakhlin, the best Ukrainian conductor, and Anton Webern, one of the founders of the new Vienna school of composers. Besides, there will be Benjamin Britten’s ‘Variation sur un theme de Purcell’ and symphony Rendering, written by Luciano Berio, a classic of the 20th century, based on the roughs found in Schubert’s oeuvre. And in Piano Concert No.3 by Bartok, which is extremely rarely performed in our country, the solo will be performed by the noted pianist Olena Bashkyrova.

“The Symphony Orchestra of the National Philharmonic Society is performing in all of the concerts, and starting from this season, I have a direct relation to it. Its former chief conductor Mykola Diadiura, who has done much (in 15 years of the orchestra’s existence), and to whom I have a kind of relation too, because Diadiura grew up in my conservatoire class, later went to work as the music director of the National Opera of Ukraine. I have been offered to take the orchestra under my protection. I haven’t been a director of a symphony orchestra in Ukraine yet, although I have ample symphonic practice. I have also communicated with numerous, nearly 80, orchestras from abroad.”

This year the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra marks its 50th anniversary. What does this date mean to you?

“I have been director of the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra for 22 years, and 50 years ago I took part in its creation as the first violinist. This date is not only sentimental for me, but a very significant one in artistic terms, because much work, imagination, and creative resources have been invested in this orchestra. To celebrate this date we have decided to organize a nostalgic stroll along our best concert programs. And the anniversary concert will be held on September 22, so prepare flowers and Champaign.”


How will you characterize the current state of affairs in Ukrainian culture?

“There is some cultural life in Ukraine, but for an outsider it looks quite inexpressive. The state of culture in our country is characterized by provinciality, an integral part of which is ignorance multiplied by excessive ambitions. Simple ignorance can be forgiven: if a person does not know something, this is not his/her fault, even if s/he is not aware of his/her ignorance and does not pose as a professor or authority. But ignorance combined with ambitions and arrogance is the main foe of culture, whose entire atmosphere today is pierced with creation of false idols, which is in a sense falsification of its history, including the history of music. The spirit of the so-called cultural life in Ukraine is a kingdom of popular culture, which is pouring from the screens in an intolerably powerful stream. If a variety singer is named ‘the best singer in entire history of Ukraine’ in the nomination ‘Person of the Year,’ it means that there is no such notion as academic singing in the sphere of art for the people who vote (and this is a big team of experts), and the words ‘singer’ and ‘music’ mean only one genre for them. As if there has not been Solomia Krushelnytska, Oksana Petrusenko, Zoia Haidai, Yelyzaveta Chavdar, and Yevhenia Miroshnychenko. This is not simply a mixture of genres, rather a withdrawal of a huge culture-creating layer.

“At the same time Ukraine has many talented young musicians. But after childhood and adolescence everything vanishes, because there are no conditions for self-perfection. And the musician, which stands a bit out against the majority, immediately buys a ticket and goes abroad.”

Why? Because he won’t survive here, or he won’t be able to develop his talent?

“He will manage to survive, but how? Speaking about the development of talent, let’s come back to the point of the general level – about the state of orchestras in oblast philharmonic societies, the state of music life in the country on the whole. Naturally, a talented person seeks to improve, looks for a more attractive environment, where s/he could learn from the great masters. For fruit to appear we need soil, which has been well cultivated for more than one season, and we have no soil of this kind as yet. Therefore I cannot see in the offing any global changes in this sphere. It does not mean that I am a pessimist. I’m a realist. My fellow musicians and I are trying to cultivate, plough, sow, and reap the small strip on the general field, and we continue to do this jointly, and them… do what you must and come what may.”

Musicians often say that good audience help perform the music. In your opinion, what is a good audience?

“An audience that does not talk, does not phone anyone or unwrap candies. I will say a thing that might be taken ambiguously: I don’t perform for the audience. I play out of the feeling of duty before the composer who wrote the music. It would be insincere of me to assert that I don’t care about the people in the hall and how many of them have come, but this is not of utmost importance for me. Composer is one of the least protected figures in culture, because the score is only a reason to complete an artistic act. A score, which is not performed by an orchestra, conductor, and soloist, is in complete, and taking this into consideration, a composer depends on everything in the world. The same thing existed in old times – it is enough to mention that Schubert had never seen any of his symphonies published. Modern composers are hardly in a better situation. In Soviet time the Ministry of Culture obliged the musicians to perform a certain percentage of the music composed by the members of the Composers Union. Another thing is that not all talented composers entered the list. These days in Ukraine, as well as in the entire world, in the realities of the free market composers have found themselves in even better situation, and there are not many chances to hear one’s work. The way of the composition, from being written down on music paper to being heard in a concert hall, is full of all kinds of surprises and difficulties. Therefore, while performing a work, I think that the author, if he is in heaven, hears his music.”


You frequently perform the works of Ukrainian composers of younger and middle generation, I have remembered your cycle of concerts “Ukrainian avant-garde.” The music written by modern authors often seems incomprehensible, complicated for perception for the audience. Why?

“Unlike other kinds of art and literature, in music the attitude of consumer to product suggests that the audience gets satisfaction not from the ultimate cognizing, but the process of recognizing. So, it is interesting for us to watch a new film, read a new book, but in music we want to listen something once again and recognize the familiar thing. The recognition as a forecast, forefeeling of a familiar thing – namely this brings joy to the audience, this is the specific feature of perceiving music art. And only especially curious people, oriented at finding new things (there are such people), look for and eagerly listen to the so-called modern music. However, I am against this term, I don’t understand the terms, such as ‘old-time music’ and ‘modern music.’ Here I object to musicologists, because in my opinion, there is no ‘old-time’ music, there is music composed in one or another year, and in the time it was created it was modern music. The term ‘modern music’ has another connotation: this is music written in a new, ‘revolutionary’ language. And in the sense of time of creation the term ‘old-time music’ is erroneous, because when Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were creating their symphonies, they all were avant-garde artists, not everyone understood them, mildly speaking. If one reads the reviews of Beethoven music, the number of denouncing epithets is higher than criticism addressed to Denisov and Schnittke in their time.”

How should one learn to listen to the music written in the new language?

“There is no way to learn, you should simply listen. No instructions, lectures, or entry words will help you, neither will you be helped by the intense desire to learn and understand something. Nothing will come out of it. Music has an effect on the sense organs, but not on your mind. This is its difference from, say, literature, which operates notions and above all has an effect on your mind, and then through mediation evokes some emotions in us. Music operates images, and only then we can make a concrete impression from the music, which cannot be expressed by words.”

Why do people listen to the music?

“This is a good question. However, let’s ask a different question: why do people create music? This is the starting point. People listen to the music, because someone creates it. We should add here several more questions: why do people paint? Why do they dance? On the whole, why aren’t people involved exclusively in invention of the wheel, a steam engine, and discovering the structure of an atom? Why are they involved in such unproductive forces as singing, dancing, and moreover, the highest form of person’s creative motivation – creating music, hence, listening to the music after all?

“The creative work is an eternal need of the humankind: one is drawing on rocks, another one makes stools, trying to make them comfortable, so that one felt comfortable while sitting on them, and to make them good-looking as well – this is a creative work either. The third one grows a beautiful garden, and the fourth one composes an opera. The thing is that listening to the music is not sitting at a concert, this is a creative process, which can be compared with observing paintings: while observing, the person is involved in creative work, too, the process of cognizing, decoding, building some associations is going on in his/her mind. While listening to the music, a person ideally feels bliss. When the orchestra gets tuned, it is far from bliss, we can hear the sounds produced by music instruments, but they are disorderly. But when the sounds are organized in a way they influence our secret receptors, which are able to perceive this as a well-composed, harmonious picture. Perceiving the image in sounds, the person comes as a participator in the creation of music.”


Do you believe that art makes people better?

“I believe, without doubt. I can see this: I have a good opportunity to observe the children’s choir Shchedryk since the day it was founded. And I can see that the children who have spent their childhood in this choir become people very different from others. The choir is 41 years old now, now the classes are attended by children of the first generation, and someone already has grandchildren. You won’t mistake these children for anyone else, for they were not educated in a special manner, no one told them: you should behave this way or another. They were changed by art, music. I remember when Iryna Mykolaivna was the head of choir [Iryna Shablina – the founder, first artistic director and chief conductor of the choir Shchedryk, Roman Kofman’s wife. – Author], she had a tradition to sing a piece children wanted. And in the end, after tense, sometimes very hard rehearsals, the tired children asked her, ‘Let’s sing Bach!’”

You have said many times that music is your hobby. Was it a joke?

“No, of course, it was not a joke. I said that I get more satisfaction from literature than from music. The reason is simple: literature is pure creative work. I create something myself, and in music I perform things formerly created by other people. Another thing is that there is another way of creative work, the art of performing, which is a creation process, too. But when you are involved in literature, you are the reason of all reasons.”

What do you feel when you perform on stage?

“Above all, I feel responsible to the composer and the orchestra. The main feeling is that I should make what depends on me, in order to bring in a most quality and full way what they call the composer’s intention. No conductor can know precisely what the author’s intention was, but of course, some eloquent contours can be read in the score.”

What is your attitude to musicians?

“You should love the musicians. And out of this love you should not let them go lower than the creative level they are able to reach.”