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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

Kyrylo Karabyts’s universities of life

How to carve out a career abroad: a “recipe” from the famed Ukrainian conductor
2 August, 2011 - 00:00
Photo by Kostiantyn HRYSHYN, The Day

Today Kyrylo Karabyts is well-known abroad. In the eyes of the European journalists he and his peers Vasily Petrenko from St. Petersburg and Andris Nelsons from Latvia present the “eastern mission” in Europe. The foreign impresarios set their hopes on those young people, however, according to Petrenko, all of them are still “B-class” musicians in the Europeans’ eyes…

The son of the famous Ukrainian composer, the founder of the international festival Kyiv Music Fest, Ivan Karabyts, Kyrylo found himself in a complicated psychological situation at the very beginning of his creative work. He had to prove, first of all, to himself that he succeeds in life not due to his father’s reputation but his own efforts. Probably, this is the reason why Kyrylo doesn’t answer the numerous questions about his father’s influence on his creative formation posed by journalists. Instead, he recalls fishing, common concerns and confidential silence with his father. In public, Kyrylo wants to strengthen the new and independent sense of his initially famed surname. Today he manages to do it.

Kyrylo Karabyts is quickly carving his career demonstrating brilliant manager’s abilities. At the age of 30 something he managed to gain enormous experience playing with various orchestras from all over the world. He’s worked with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonic Orchestra, Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and others. His conductor’s repertoire differs by the large number of styles, rarely performed works and the works of the modern composers.

Kyrylo Karabyts has told The Day some details of his way to the music Olympus.


“I consider Roman Kofman to be my main teacher of symphonic conducting,” confessed Karabyts. “It’s always been and will be so! Despite my later studies in Vienna where I received the diploma (there was another teacher there), Kofman taught me practical things: what to do and what not to do, how to time, economize gestures, accompany the soloists and lots of other things. These are the unwritten laws of conducting, the grains that will stay forever. Roman Kofman taught me everything concerning the work with the orchestra, all the basis. Kofman ennobled my technique so to say. I came to his class as a choir conductor, after Lev Venedyktov’s class with choral scenes and operas. In general, at the beginning I had a very spontaneous and chaotic repertoire. Roman Kofman set certain limits: what I had to master and what could be postponed, in other words, he somehow organized my way from one score to another.”

What compositions did you start with?

“I came to Lev Venedyktov (the head choirmaster of the National Ukrainian Opera House) with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphony for the choral conducting. What was the first composition I mastered with Kofman? It seems to me it was one of Beethoven’s or Brahms’ symphonies. I remember performing Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony at the first exam. I remember it because Roman Kofman had been wary with me before, and after I passed the exam I felt his confidence. And the work went better.”

You’ve recently played Tchaikovsky’s symphonies abroad, those compositions are very popular among the audience and every note in them is known. Aren’t you afraid of playing this kind of music?

“Lately, I’ve been trying not to play Tchaikovsky’s compositions. It’s extremely difficult to obtain the desired artistic result within one or two rehearsals. To play Tchaikovsky’s symphonies other conditions are needed than the ones an invited conductor has. I’ve recently conducted the Fourth Symphony in London with the Royal Orchestra. We had only two rehearsals. Certainly, the musicians play this music from memory. However, another situation is needed to get the energy provided by the music from the orchestra. One should work with the orchestra all the time and have several rehearsals a day, both the conductor and the musicians should have a possibility to relax before the concert in order to perform well at night. There’s nothing to talk about without it.”

How do you define the energy of the compositions you play?

“When you know the peculiarities of the score – what should be necessarily emphasized and what shouldn’t be done – some performer’s problems arise and have to be resolved. In order to do this one should rehearse the musical situations from the composition with the orchestra. For example, at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony clarinets perform a solo. It means that I as a conductor have to make the musicians play softly, perform the rich sounding and ‘breathe’ with the speed needed at certain moments. Otherwise, the music tissue will be torn and the following actions will be groundless. If a musician is used to playing in a certain manner, it’s very difficult for him to understand the requirement to play in a different way. So, the conductor has to display his resolution and make it his own way, however, rather through persuasion than diktat. The musicians will play as required but not right off. They also need some time to digest the conductor’s idea.”


What else except your professional qualities did you get from the work with Venedyktov and Kofman?

“I had been constantly visiting Kofman’s rehearsals so his personality had a “complex” influence on me. It was interesting to watch his work in different situations: with the orchestra and during the class. I also attended Venedyktov’s concerts and when I worked as a conductor at the Ukrainian National Opera House our communication intensified. His comments are still useful to me and this process is still in progress. As for the human qualities, both Kofman and Venedyktov taught me to be uncompromising. The conditions in choirs and orchestras are never ideal just as life is never ideal either: some choirs are too large; some orchestras are very small and need some more musicians. Sometimes a musician falls ill or something else happens. But whatever happens both Kofman and Venedyktov have certain standards of the artistic performance that they always maintain. Kofman never relies on the luck of the draw and cancels rehearsing. Neither does Venedyktov. If he takes up Aida, for instance, he polishes it with the choir again and again: this note has to be higher and that phrase has to be sustained. At every rehearsal he doesn’t let the singer go but acts as his inner censor.”

You often tour abroad, but how did you study there?

“When I came to Vienna I found myself in a company of beginners who only started conducting. They could hardly do anything and when our classes started they came, sat at the piano and played Beethoven’s symphonies. Gradually, I started getting less and less enthusiastic about Vienna. ‘Vienna is the city of music!’ – in October I was excited about it but in November I fell into depression. In Kyiv, Kofman, Venedyktov and the ensemble the Kyiv Camerata played Transfigured Night by Arnold Schoenberg and the artistic life was in full swing there. But my Vienna environment was absolutely calm. The students from Latin America were mastering Beethoven and conducting down and right. In general it was a certain solfeggio at the most primitive level (probably, with the harmony rudiments). A month and a half later I felt suffocated and thought: ‘No, it’s not for me!’ I couldn’t have left as the studying process had already started. Suddenly, I learnt that the Budapest Festival Orchestra was looking for an assistant. I had to play Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss and Harold in Italy by Louis-Hector Berlioz at the audition. I thought that even if they wouldn’t take me, I would still do something specific: I’ll come to Budapest, work with the orchestra, and the main thing, I won’t sit in class and listen to the elementary things that I’ve known for ages (since in Kyiv I had already conducted orchestras).

“In Budapest I had a good relationship with Ivan Fisher. We communicated a lot and he believed me. My job was to criticize the orchestra (for Fisher it was very important to have the ‘ears’ among the audience that would control him). He invented an interesting task in order to test the candidates for the assistant’s position. He said: ‘I’ll play an excerpt and you’ll say what was wrong.’ I told him where the triangle didn’t play and who didn’t join in. Fisher employed me.”


One of your first creative achievements was the performance of the serenade opera by Georg Philipp Telemann The Musical Pastorale...

“It was a concert performance. I saw Telemann’s notes in our archives but I didn’t know what they were. We don’t have any catalogs of this composer’s works that is why I brought the notes to Vienna. There I saw that this composition had not been registered among the operas or cantatas either. I addressed Telemann’s Center in Magdeburg and later brought the notes there. I was told that the music I brought undoubtedly belongs to Telemann. There are about fifty of his lost operas and only seven of them are known! As soon as I got the evidence of his authorship I started preparing the notes for the performance. And at once I faced a serious obstacle that was the Old German language. The text was written in illegible letters, it was a special type that was commonly used after the Gothic one. The services of the specialists in this sphere cost a lot. What could I do? I chose another way to go. As a student I made some money on the side then: I played the piano in an operetta and when we went to Germany on a tour I took Telemann’s notes with me. One day I took them to a nursing home. I asked at the control post: ‘Is there anyone who could read this type since it was commonly used a hundred years ago?’ Their first attitude was wary but then they took me to a frau. That nice elderly lady equipped with a lens started reading the text and I typed it on the computer. This way we translated several pages. Owing to this dictation I could understand the type and finished the translation myself. The decoding took six months. Then I searched the musicians and it was quite difficult as well. However, in Germany and Austria, Telemann is the lord and master! That is why I managed to find an ensemble, play and record it. It was a very interesting working experience with the musicians playing baroque musical instruments.”

What was the exoticism of modern Europe for you?

“If you’re talking about the difference in living standards, it’s just enormous! As for the different type of thinking, I like our people more. They are what they are and they don’t strive to be anything else. As for the culture, England, for instance, seems to me using achievements of other countries. They gathered the best of other national traditions: they eat in Italian restaurants, buy clothes in French boutiques, and so on. However, I cannot offer the Ukrainian music there. Everything is hampered by elementary things and one of them is the absence of notes. In order to play Borys Liatoshynsky’s symphonies I have to get orchestra parties that don’t exist. I won’t write a letter to the National Symphony Orchestra asking to send a single work of copyists. The orchestras of certain level don’t do so!

“It’s a hard time now… For example, in England they cut down the orchestras budgets that is why they struggle for survival. The orchestras play something that attracts the audience which is the standard classical repertoire… These concerts are mainly attended by elderly people who prefer listening to what they are used to. To play something else the advertisement is needed, the stories why it’s interesting and so on. Then it will be possible.

“The situation in France is nearly the same. The concert halls represent nearly all kinds of music (just like in England): there’s everything, ancient and modern compositions as well as operas. Every direction has its own place, its ‘niche.’”

What’s your main creative task for now?

“It’s important for me not to lose my way. To continue the work I’ve started. To play a lot. Anyone whatever they do always look for the way to themselves in order to feel good. People shouldn’t be criticized for that. It’s always been and will be so. If you feel good in your environment others will feel good too. This is how the world is created. Of course, I’d like to play the things that give comfort to me. However, I cannot play Liatoshynsky with foreign musicians right off. I have to gradually introduce Gliere and Prokofiev. I have to tell the musicians that those names are closely related to Ukraine. Then they get interested. In the nearest future I’m thinking of creating in England a long-term project connected to Sergei Prokofiev, the Russian classic born in Ukraine in the village of Sontsivka (now the village of Krasne in Krasnoarmiisk raion of Donetsk oblast).”


Kyrylo Karabyts was born on December 26, 1976 in Kyiv. He got the musical education at the Tchaikovsky National Ukrainian Music Academy (Lev Venedyktov taught him the choral conducting, and Roman Kofman the symphonic one) and in the Vienna Academy of Music and Dance (his teacher there was Uros Lajovic).

In 1996, he made his debut as a symphonic conductor with the ensemble of soloists at the Ukrainian Composers’ Union the Kyiv Camerata. In 1998-2000 he worked as an assistant conductor at the Budapest Festival Orchestra, headed by Ivan Fisher since 1997.

In 2002, Kyrylo Karabyts was offered the position of the second conductor in the orchestra of the National Radio of France; two years later he was offered to become the invited conductor of the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Simultaneously, Karabyts tried his hand as an opera conductor. In 2002, the National Ukrainian Opera House staged Buffoons by Leoncavallo with his participation and the new version of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Today Karabyts conducts Natalka-Poltavka by Lysenko.

In 2005, Karabyts recorded in Vienna the serenade opera by Telemann the Musical Pastorale whose notes were considered to be lost and were found by the conductor in the archives of the Berlin Chapel. He restored another composition from this notorious collection, the St. John’s Passion by Bach, during his doctoral candidacy in Vienna.

In 2009, he was invited to stage Shostakovich’s opera Moscow-Cheriomushki with the participation of the Lyon Opera orchestra (the video was issued on CDs with the participation of MEZZO channel). His last opera works include The Excursions of Mr. Broucek by Leos Janacek in the Geneva Opera House, Fancy-Dress Ball in Strasbourg, Eugene Onegin at the festival in the English Glyndebourne and the Queen of Spades in Luxembourg.

Kyrylo Karabyts signed a contract with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England. With this orchestra in 2010 the conductor recorded the CDs for prestigious audio companies: the Fourth and Fifth concertos for orchestra by Shchedrin that have never been played before for Naxos and the suites from the ballets Spartacus and Gayane by Khachaturian for Onyx Classics.

In 2010, Kyrylo Karabyts was awarded the prize of the British Royal Philharmonic Society for his work with the Bournemouth orchestra.

By Olena DIACHKOVA, music expert