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

“Nothing in life happens by chance”

Andriy Viytovych between violin and viola, between Lviv and London
7 November, 2017 - 12:13
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

We met the outstanding violist at the recent 28th international festival Kyiv Music Fest 2017. Andriy Viytovych specially came to Kyiv to take part in the concert that marked the 75th birthday of Yevhen Stankovych, a classic of the contemporary Ukrainian school of composers, and, concurrently, to conduct a master class for viola students at the National Music Academy of Ukraine. These two – performing and teaching – vectors were the linchpin of our conversation.


Mr. Viytovych, you were the first to perform Yevhen Stankovych’s both concertos for viola and orchestra. What does the name of this composer mean to you?

“It is not just music! I’ve known Mr. Stankovych for so long. We began to communicate more closely somewhere in 1998.”

Is it connected in some way with your departure abroad?

“No. I left for Switzerland in 1991, but I’ve never considered myself an emigrant because I went to study at the school of the famous Yehudi Menuhin. Then I happened to give a concert with pianist Olha Liforenko at the Kyiv Conservatoire’s Smaller Hall. We played Mikhail Glinka’s sonata and some other pieces… I remember that my parents came, as did Yevhen Stankovych with his wife. He asked: ‘Why was there no Ukrainian music on the program?’ There was none indeed – I didn’t know much about Ukrainian composers at the time. I switched from the violin to the viola at rather a mature age. I played a sonata by Hanna Havrylets at a contest, some other pieces, and, incidentally, the arrangements of Zenon Dashak, the now, unfortunately, late rector of the Lviv Conservatoire.”

What contest do you mean?

“‘The Golden Autumn’ in Khmelnytskyi. Incidentally, Solomia Soroka, a participant in Stankovych’s recital at Kyiv Music Fest, and I were same-year students. We met at Boryspil Airport after a 30-year-long pause. I was pleased very much to see her. She also competed at that contest in Khmelnytskyi and won the first prize. And I took part in the viola category. Playing Ukrainian opuses was a must there. This was the first time I encountered Ukrainian viola music.”

So everything began with Mr. Stankovych’s phrase about the absence of Ukrainian music on your program…

“Yes! Everybody was calling on him to compose something. And he did it. I asked him: ‘Mr. Stankovych, please write a piece for me. I like playing something technically effective.’ But he created a totally different thing. That was the music which does not show the soloist but reveals what’s going on in the composer’s head. It demonstrates an integrated picture. It is in fact not a concerto for viola but a symphony-concerto, as is indicated in the score.”

Mr. Stankovych always thinks in an uncommon way…

“I remember being perplexed, frankly speaking, when I got the notes. For it’s not easy to play a Stankovych concerto of this type. Yes, it is technically complicated, but it also presents some serious difficulties in terms of performance. I am aware of this only now. I was young at the time. When he was composing this piece, he must have meant that I would play it 20 years later. Therefore, Stankovych occupies a special place in my life.”

Is there any difference in the very interpretation of the First Concerto when you played it at a young age and when you play it now? Do you think it has changed?

“It surely has. At the time, I had just finished my studies, began to work on my own, and had to work without teachers. Like most of the novice musicians, I used to learn my part and only listen a little to the orchestra. Now I pay great attention to the score, I want to sink into voice-leading, know and hear with whom I am playing, and achieve the required balance.”

It is the result of your longtime performing experience…

“It is the experience of not only my solo performances, but also of playing in the orchestra with soloists.”

Of course! You know, like nobody else, what it is to stand in front of the orchestra or to sit in the latter.

“Yes! This helps very much.”

I don’t think it was too difficult for you to switch from the violin to the viola. Yes, the instrument is larger, the score clefs are different, fingering may be somewhat different, etc., but the instruments are closely related. I read somewhere: if a musician has switched to the viola, he or she is a bad violinist.

“It is not even a joke. Moreover, it is alleged that when a violist has taken up the viola and still fails, there’s nothing left for him to do but master the profession of a conductor (laughs).”

The viola has now become as much a solo instrument as the violin. I just think too little is composed for the viola.

“It’s true. The repertoire is limited. So I am looking for new opuses or arrange some for the viola – mostly, these are violin compositions.”

I’ve read you play practically all the existing viola concertos!

“Not exactly. For example, I’ve never played concertos by Schnittke and Gubaydullina. It is already classics today. Besides, very many opuses are not played because they are unknown. But my repertoire really includes traditional pieces.”

I know that you are trying to popularize Ukrainian music abroad as much as possible.

“I don’t play much of it, although I am, naturally, trying to do so as far as I can. There is a Music Society in London with Alla Sirenko at the head. There is a hall at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church. It is quite good and hosts concerts. Ukrainian music sounds very often. As I have said, my repertoire includes a sonata by Hanna Havrylets. There is also a very good sonata by Maksym Berezovsky for violin, which violists play quite often. Naturally, I am trying to perform Ukrainian music whenever possible, especially by Yevhen Stankovych, and, of course, Myroslav Skoryk’s ‘Melody’ – it is unsurpassable.

“I was recently in concert with Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden), where I work as viola group leader. He is a marvelous pianist. We played two Brahms sonatas, the Scherzo, and Skoryk’s ‘Melody’ as an encore. Whatever the case, Skoryk is a classic for centuries to come.”

Do you always play the same instrument or have several violas?

“I have several violas, but I usually play on the instrument of Serhii Melnyk, our Ukrainian master from Ivano-Frankivsk. This is a specific viola. It is distinguished even by color. I acquired it in 1992 or so. It is now part and parcel of me.”


Now about your teaching career at the Royal College of Music. How many students do you have?

“I have a small class, although it used to be bigger. There are four students, which is the best option for me today. Two will graduate next year. I have an assistant, a former girl student of mine. I’ve taught since 1998. Many young musicians come to me from abroad for auditions. I’m pleased very much. But, frankly speaking, I can count really brilliant students during my teaching practice just on the fingers of one hand.”

And is the level of beginners in the West and in Ukraine comparable?

“You know, it may be even somewhat higher in Ukraine. This exclusively depends on the individual and on the way the teacher works…”

It is sad that talented young people are now striving to go abroad and stay behind there – not because of better teachers but because of wider opportunities.

“In my view, there’s a certain risk here. If a child is talented, there is a sense in this. But people often go, hoping that it is easier to make their way in the West. I think it is a waste of time and effort.”

Do Western orchestras mostly prefer their compatriots?

“Not necessarily. They took me, for instance. They choose the people who know how to play. One should come, take an exam, and show his or her worth.

“Some people think that Western education is better. But there are different teachers there. You should know who to choose. I think children’s music education is not very good in Britain. The theoretical background of musicians is very poor. For example, there is no solfeggio course at all. They don’t sing! But I think it is the basic thing because all instruments, especially the strings, follow the voice, whatever you say to me. Incidentally, my students write dictations. Solfeggio develops a good ear, without which no one will make a good musician.”

Ukraine recently saw a wave of protests against eliminating the network of music schools, without which it is impossible to preserve the basic foundation of music education in the state. For there are a lot of talented children there, who may eventually become musicians even without graduating from specialized 10-year schools which number as “many” as four in a 40-million-strong country! The public anger has been calmed a little now, but for how long?

“Yes, I stay in touch with a school like this in Kremenets were I was born and raised. I watch a lot of gifted children. I even advised one to go to Kyiv for an audition. I hope these educational institutions will not be destroyed.

“In Ukraine, primary music education is far better than in the West. Yes, many things were foisted on us in the Soviet era, but the solfeggio-harmony-musical culture system is the necessary groundwork for shaping a skilled musician. I rely on my own experience.

“Nothing in life happens by chance. Things occur the way they should. Why did I and not Solomia Soroka, who I think is more talented than me, go to the Yehudi Menuhin School in Switzerland? I don’t know. In the school, they suggested that I switch to the viola because I didn’t suit them as a violinist. It was an ultimatum: either I play the viola or I go back to Ukraine. Could I have come back to Lviv, saying that I failed to come up to expectations and justify their trust? They wouldn’t have understood me! So I took a viola and decided to learn to play it. Luckily, my musical and theoretical background was so good that I managed to do so – otherwise I wouldn’t have succeeded.”

You work at an opera house, teach, play solo and chamber numbers, play with an orchestra…

“I have also been giving a course in Spain for 15 years. It includes two-week daily master classes and concerts, followed by a rock gig. Besides, there’s a festival of my violinist friend Oles Semchuk in San Marino…”

What are your immediate plans?

“Next year we will be marking the 130th birth anniversary of Vasyl Barvinsky [outstanding Ukrainian composer, pianist, conductor, and pedagogue. – Ed.]. His works were published in Poland recently. There is an idea to play this amazing music. For the heritage of Barvinsky met a tragic destiny. He was repressed in 1948 and served a 10-year term in Mordovia prison camps, his notes were destroyed, and then enthusiasts had to collect the master’s oeuvre – grain by grain – throughout the world. I would like to give Barvinsky’s works a new lease of life.”

By Olha HOLYNSKA, musicologist