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

Kirill KARABITS: “Performing Ukrainian music, I find out new things about myself”

12 January, 2017 - 11:38

He is the most famous, the most creative, and the most emotional. Nearly every publication about Kyivite Kirill Karabits, who this year became the head of German National Theatre in Weimar and the oldest German orchestra, which has turned 525, mentions all these loud epithets. One of them features a photograph where the conductor’s hands are literally made of gold.

The questions of Ukrainian music in Ukraine, the state of the Ukrainian culture, the danger of hooray-patriotism and division into friends and enemies, culture strategy and the need for culture diplomacy are raised in The Day’s interview with the maestro, who celebrated his birthday on December 26.

Do you feel that you are 40 years old now? Do you already associate this number with yourself?

“I haven’t thought about it yet. But this is an interesting thing. You live your life, and suddenly it turns out that a considerable part of your life is behind. Currently I am looking at this from aside, as if not me, but someone else has turned 40. I don’t think that my life will change considerably after 40. There will be rehearsals and concerts, like before.”

Travels and flights.

“Now I’m going to Weimar, then there will be the production of Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten in Stuttgart, later, in June, Boris Godunov in Berlin, and an American tour. The only thing that will probably change is that the journalists will stop calling me a ‘young conductor.’

“It’s very pleasant that on my birthday I will be performing. I have a performance in Weimar, it’s Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. This will be a family concert which will take place at 16:00. Generally, it is nice to have a concert on your birthday.”

I know that you have scheduled projects in Ukraine as well.

“Yes. On February 7 I will perform at the National Philharmonic Society in Kyiv with the chamber ensemble Kyivski Solisty. The program will include works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Georg Friedrich Haendel.”

In summer you made headlines in Ukraine by presenting previously lost symphony by Maksym Berezovsky together with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Philharmonic Society.

“Russians recorded it and published it as the ‘first Russian’ symphony. The truth is that it is the first Ukrainian symphony. Hopefully, the work will become part of the repertoire of the Ukrainian orchestras, and it will be performed for a long time in our country.”

How did you find it?

“An American conductor found it. He was working at the Vatican Archives and came across the symphony. Since he was working with Russian ensembles, he gave the music sheet to Russians. After I learned about this, I met with him on my tour in the US and explained why we needed this symphony and how important it was to perform it namely in Ukraine. He agreed. In exchange he received some works I had found in Kyiv archives. Incidentally, namely in Kyiv during my studies I found the manuscripts of the Bach family. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to study them as deeply as I wanted: President Kuchma transferred the archives to Germany. They loaded a plane with the rarities and just sent them, simple as that.”

Will the Ukrainian music be performed in Weimar, Germany, after you started your first season as a music director of the opera theater and the state choir in autumn?

“Sure. It has already been performed. A year ago, at the New Year concerts together with the German orchestra we performed Shchedryk in Leontovych’s edition. Soon the German audience will learn about Liatoshynsky and Sylvestrov. The premiere featuring Ukrainian violinist Valerii Sokolov is scheduled for January 2018.

“In autumn Richard Wagner’s opera The Master-Singers of Nuremberg was presented for the audience. It was my full-scale debut in Weimar, a six-hour long performance. Even our fourth performance enjoyed a full-house.”

In an opera.

“Yes. In Weimar with a population of 60,000, not several million, people. At first it was complicated, because the opera had been included in the plan before I came to the theater, and there had been fewer rehearsals than it was needed. I spent much time to understand the work: what was the purpose, what certain moments meant, why was that scene included in the second act, not the first one. Finally, I achieved the needed emotional condition, the work ‘spoke’ to me, and I felt it. Owing to this, I started to understand the German music and culture better, as well as Germans as a nation.”

What about yourself?

“I learn new things about myself when I perform Ukrainian music. This is probably my way to get close to self-exploration.”


What do Germans know about the Ukrainian classical music?

“Almost nothing. I am tired to repeat: if you want Ukrainian art to be known abroad, bring it and present it there, establish TV channels, radio stations which would tell the foreigners about us. I believe that this work will start after all, because we need it. It is pointless to hope that a German or Italian, when they hear another new report about the military actions in Ukraine, will suddenly think, ‘What an interesting country. I’ll google what new is happening in their culture.’

“The country should have a consistent professional presentation. Efforts and money should be invested in its promotion. I don’t like the word ‘propaganda,’ but sometimes it is relevant. Unless we propagate our things, no one will know about us, and we will remain just a general image. So to say, there is such a country, where Chornobyl exploded, and they say it is not Russia. If we want to prove our uniqueness, we must prove it.

“In the atmosphere we can hear this mantra and it stands in our way, ‘We are the best. Everyone dreams about us. Everyone is living with our problems.’ It would be good, but there are too many obstacles. First of all, every country has problems of its own. Germans above all care about German problems, the English care about English problems, as well as the Americans, when they elect their president, will be thinking about themselves, rather than about Ukraine.

“We shouldn’t sit and wait that the foreigners will help us. I for one have understood the simple truth: if you want to have something, do it yourself. There was time when I was sitting and waiting for invitations from the leading theaters, better Ukrainian ones. I was waiting till the age of 30 and then I realized: time is passing by. Wasting it is the luxury a person cannot afford. And no country can afford it.”


“When I hear, ‘We need only our people,’ I feel creepy. Well, let’s cut our map out of the map of the world, out of the context of the world culture, turn it into a provincial country, not out of the will of our neighbors, but out of our own will. Who will feel better about it? By which criteria are we going to define, what is ours and what is not, who is our friend, and who is our enemy? Is this a matter of geography or political affiliations, does it depend on the language, or on someone’s ‘authoritative opinion’? Who has the right to decide, who is ours and who is not? This is a dangerous way of thinking, because if we give it a thought, anyone might become an enemy. I might for sure, because most of the time I am living abroad.”

And you performed Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky’s works in Maidan on the Independence Day.

“Right. And before that, on the Day of Independence as well in Maidan, Terterian and Yanchek, although Lysenko, Liatoshynsky, Berezovsky, and Shchedryk by our contemporary Ivan Nebesny were performed there too. But this might turn out to be not enough to be a friend. I don’t like to discuss this case with Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, because it indicated our disunity rather than our unity, how easy it is to provoke and split our society, how many contradictions and doubts about ourselves we still have. We need to gradually overcome certain things, and we will succeed in this, I optimistically believe. But, honestly, I have a question, ‘Who needs what you’re doing?’”

What is the answer?

“It’s not always a satisfactory one. I convince people (not only here, but in England, where my Prokofiev CDs with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were released) that Sergey Prokofiev is a Ukrainian composer. But do Ukrainians want it? I’m not sure. Maybe some of them do, and some don’t need it at all. Some people don’t know at all who Prokofiev was and still continue to reject and protest against him.”


As for me, such protests again come from the Soviet system of coordinates, when you could say, “I haven’t read Pasternak’s verse, but I condemn it.”

“In fact, first and foremost, we need to find ourselves and get rid of the Soviet legacy, thinking and behavioral stereotypes, habits, cliches, and then start to filtrate whether we need music, literature, painting of the Soviet time. Otherwise these are just cosmetic changes without any internal base.

“You cannot build a country based on purely ‘hooray-patriotism’ (I don’t mean heroism, but this attitude ‘we’re the best and everyone owes us.’) The slogans, the pompousness, the calls to struggle look effective, but they must be supported by real actions. We can rename the streets as often as we like, but the same people will be walking there. We need to change. We can name our music, scientific, educational, and other institutions after the greatest patriots of Ukraine, but if we don’t eradicate corruption, bribery, and all the corrosive processes, what will it give us?

“Yes, we invite people known in the world, our fellow countrymen to perform, work, and teach. But we are not used to pay for this. People, look how the world lives. Where else does such thing exist? If you want to come to Ukraine, find a reason, come at your own expense, realize your ideas, and often pay for his from your own pocket, because the state is poor. The state is lucky to have volunteers. But it has soon become used to volunteering. Usually no money is allotted for culture, because we still don’t realize the cause and effect relationship between culture and politics, culture and ethic, culture and the country’s image in the world, after all, between culture and the national awareness.”

Between culture and ATO after all.

“Strangely, these threads continue to come unnoticed. Our main problem is not even external, it is an internal one. Because our words are not supported by any actions. We say that we want changes, but in fact we are clinging to old things. We get distracted by secondary things, meanwhile the main thing, on its own or with someone’s help, slips away from our sight and from our heads. We have rows about things that are not worth fighting, about the things that should be absolutely clear. Whether Prokofiev is ours or not, is this the most important thing? Wouldn’t it be simpler and more useful to say, ‘The talent? Okay, he is ours.’ In my opinion, it is much better to appropriate all brilliant things.”

And then others won’t dare to tear them out of our hands. Incidentally, did the youth orchestra “Born Free,” which performed in Maidan and featured 25-year-old coevals of the Ukrainian Independence become a regular one or it was a one-time performance?

“As an artistic director of I, CULTURE Orchestra, the European youth orchestra based in Polish Gdansk, I support the idea of Ukraine having an orchestra of graduates of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, other conservatoires, the Gliere Institute, the music schools. So that the young musicians had a chance to realize themselves in Ukraine, like I dreamt. Moreover, I am open for any proposals to cooperate with such an orchestra, in spite of my work in England, Germany, or else. And this is the question that is not up to me to decide. I don’t know who is responsible, because in our country it is always hard to tell who specifically is responsible for what. But there is always hope. Maybe those who don’t like Prokofiev should have pointed their efforts in a peaceful direction and won for Ukraine the right to have a youth orchestra that would travel across the world and performed the works by Ukrainian composers, promoting Ukraine in such a way? But this is a concert venue that we are still lacking in Kyiv.”

In summer I attended an interesting concert you delivered not in a capital venue, but in the Palace of Culture of the town Ukrainka near Kyiv. It was quite interesting and special and reminded an educational project.

“So to say, classics for everyone? Together with Kyivski Solisty we performed what is called the popular classics, Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi and Astor Piazzolla. With explanations, my lyrical digressions and jokes, to make people understand the meaning of things. I liked it, and judging by the full house, the residents of Ukrainka liked it too. We are planning another concert in February. The previous one had a free admission. But this time I’m planning to raise funds for the repair of the Palace of Culture.”