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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

On the art of being a leader

Volodymyr SIRENKO: The conductor is just a mediator between the composer and the audience
6 September, 2011 - 00:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

The current vacation season of the Kyiv Philharmonic Society was adorned by the concert with the eloquent name “The Symphony of Love” by the National Chamber Ensemble, the Kyiv Soloists, that was held during the Summer Music Rays Festival timed to the 20th Independence anniversary of Ukraine. The lyric and passionate music of the popular classical composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, Henryk Wieniawski, Giacomo Puccini, Edward Elgar and others’ embraced the audience in the Mykola Lysenko Pillared Hall by the romantic haze of the charming melodies. The virtuosic musicians’ performance captivated the audience by the perfect ensemble congruence, the fantastic richness of the timbre palette and the exquisite and artistically perfect rendition. It looked like the audience forgot that the conductor who is usually the central figure at the stage was absent. Actually, since the beginning of this year the chief conductor of this wonderful ensemble has been the known musician, Shevchenko Prize winner, outstanding conductor Volodymyr Sirenko (who is also the art director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine). When asked about the absent conductor, maestro answered that the repertoire of the orchestra he heads includes several programs that do not provide for the conductor at the stage. On the one hand it is the evidence of the extremely high musicians’ professionalism, on the other hand – the complete confidence the conductor has in them they completely justify. At the same time, a question arose: is the conductor’s creative life always as calm and nearly idyllic as the abovementioned concert? During the conversation with Volodymyr SIRENKO I gradually opened the interesting and contrasting pages of this extremely difficult elite profession.


“In the life of any musician who gives concerts there are a lot of both funny and serious events. Our orchestra (I mean, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine I have been heading since 1995) used to experience extreme situations as well: on May 9, 2005 during the celebration of the 60th Victory anniversary in Minsk we were playing outdoors and it rained at times. Everyone who cared about the musical instruments (not to mention the musicians) had to occasionally put on the waterproof cape-tents and open umbrellas,” Sirenko recalls.

“Sometimes we strayed from the planned tour route or played just after long journeys. I remember a more serious ordeal. It was the most extreme event in my conductor’s career. On June 21, 2006 in the National Palace “Ukraina” they held a meeting of the World War II veterans (except the UPA soldiers [the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. – Ed.]) dedicated to the 65th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. The program comprised the ‘Cinemaphony’ accompanied by Dmitry Shostakovich’s music premiered in 2005 in the Royal Albert-Hall in London. (The cinemaphony is a new art that combines symphonic music with video. The use of the newsreel has to assure the trustworthiness of the author’s idea. When plunged into the cinemaphony one enters a new psychological state and becomes a virtual participant of the historical events; the combination of live music and the newsreel makes, according to the scientists, the visual perception resonate with the auditory one for 90 percent.) So, the screen was showing the horrors of the World War II and of the totalitarian Stalin’s regime. When watching, some of the veterans started protesting and shouting aggressively defending the Stalinism. Shortly after they started fighting! Some of the veterans left the hall but those who wanted to see the real history and empathized with those who went through the horror of Holodomor, holocaust of the whole nations and the tragedy of the war stayed… After the concert a woman came to me and apologized for the indecent behavior of some people who, in her opinion, had nothing to do with real veterans… To be honest, it was very difficult to work since we had to play without paying attention to the ‘showdowns’ in the hall. Our musicians stood this test… Probably, the music helped them to do it.”


You head the two best orchestras of our country. Do you like working as the chief conductor of the Kyiv Soloists ensemble?

“Working with like-minded musicians and real professionals is extremely interesting for me. We are going to realize various concert projects. Thus Kyrylo Karabyts will conduct the program ‘Brandenburg Concertos’ by Johann

Sebastian Bach. Shortly Serhii Protopopov will present the music of the modern Ukrainian composers during the KyivMusicFest Festival. We will have a special program timed to the celebration of Bohodar Kotorovych’s 70th anniversary (the outstanding violinist, conductor, teacher and founder of the Kyiv Soloists ensemble, who, unfortunately passed away in July 2009). In the nearest future we are going to the festivals in Lviv and Donetsk. We were glad to accept the invitation to play in Poltava where we are always welcomed by the music lovers. The programs of our concerts are diverse: ‘Serenades Night’ with the music by Edward Benjamin Britten, Valentin Silvestrov, Antonin Dvorak and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, ‘serious’ classical music of the 20th century: ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’ by Bela Bartok, ‘The Second Symphony’ by Arthur Honegger, etc.”

What is the place of the domestic avant-garde music of the 1960s in your programs since the interest towards it is now significantly growing in Ukraine?

“You know, we have already crossed the line of the post avant-garde music, so to say. Of course this term is quite conventional but the music the composers write today is not as avant-garde as it used to be. That is why my attitude towards the avant-garde of the 1960s is quite neutral. Nobody knows how the music will develop in future.”


I remember your bright and spectacular concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in the popular program “Classic-Premiere.”

“Oh, probably that was the best time on the television! The television journalist Tetiana Milenna managed to gather the best Ukrainian young musicians. All the participants of this original show realized why this program was created. I remind you that for a long time the television broadcasted small fragments of those concerts of popular classical music instead of advertising some products…”

I have an impression that you are an all-purpose conductor who likes both operas and symphonic music, you are equally emotional when accompanying singers, violinists, pianists, etc. However, there are a lot of conductors who chose their priority genres and entered the annals of history. Do you have any priorities?

“I believe that professional conductors can be equally interested and successful in playing with symphony orchestras, conducting operas and ballets or accompanying pianists or violinists. For example, I am interested in my work in the Opera Studio at the National Music Academy whose young singers have rather high qualification. I take this part of my job as a certain hobby. At the same time I like to accompany talented artists a lot.”

How would you comment on the contemporary post-modern projects as the joint concerts of symphony orchestras and pop-stars?

“To be honest, I am quite indifferent about it. The National Symphony Orchestra played with The Scorpions and Sting (I did not participate in those concerts), however, such purely commercial experiments are not in the range of my professional interests…”

What is the place of the Ukrainian music in your career?

“Believe me, it is not the last both in my soul and my professional plans. We have rich symphonic music but the government does not properly care about the promotion of the national culture. We can see in Ukraine the fruitful work of the cultural institutions of the European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and others), however, Ukraine has not taken the initiative to follow the traditions of other countries. Instead, the modern music global market is rather aggressive and we have to accept its challenges. At the same time I have to admit that our government does not care even about the creation of basic technical conditions to allow the symphony orchestras working efficiently. The musicians still play with the handwritten notes that the West has already forgotten about long time ago.”


When looking at you during your concerts one may concede that you are a dictator in your orchestra. Probably, the conductor who is the head of a large creative team has the right to be a dictator?

“Probably, the conductor as the head of the orchestra has to have the will. I do not let the people ‘sitting down’ yet we can only be partners in our team. I am pleased to say that I am not disappointed with my colleagues. I hope that the musicians are not disappointed with me.”

The style of your work proves that you are not concerned with the visual effects whereas some conductors resort to them during the concerts: showy poses, diverse mimics, excessive gestures, etc. What do you think about such means to additionally “impress the audience,” does one need them in such serious work as the symphonic conducting is?

“I regard these effects as the ‘conducting aesthetics’ and I am quite indifferent about them and I think that the conducting does not need them. Let’s recall at least, world-known Herbert von Karajan who played most of the symphony scores his eyes closed! As they say, the music was in his hands. I teach the symphonic conducting in the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy and try to make my students to acquire the good taste and to avoid the excessive self-admiration and posing. You know, one of the famous conductors was even believed to have his own symphony score copies full of notes he wrote: ‘smile to the double basses, scowl,’ etc. However, I think that the behavior of the conductor at the stage has to follow the music, so that the audience could enjoy the music and not be distracted by the conductor’s movements. One should not forget that the conductor is just a mediator between the composer and the audience and render the true version of the composer’s idea which is a serious and important endeavor for a professional artist.”

By Natalia SEMENENKO, music expert