An alumnus of the Juilliard School of Music and Yale University and with a Grammy nomination under his belt, cellist and conductor Dmitry Yablonsky is one of the most recognisable figures in the world of classical music, with a long list of international awards and recognitions, and a rich history of collaborations with some of the most acclaimed orchestra around the globe.
The maestro, who currently heads the Department of International Relations at the Buchman-Mehta Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, has performed in many of the leading music venues of Europe, America and beyond, and is renowned for his rare ability to conduct concerts in which he himself is featured as soloist. These concerts, as is the case with all his projects, invariably tend to introduce audiences to something new, since the musician’s vast repertoire and command of divergent styles allows him to present programmes that incorporate works ranging from the Baroque to the Romantic, from tango nuevo to the Romanian choir, and so much more.
Recently, Yablonsky was appointed as the chief conductor and artistic director of the Kyiv Virtuosi orchestra, a unique orchestra from Ukraine that works simultaneously as both a chamber and symphonic ensemble. This March, the conductor and soloist will be leading the orchestra on a tour of several concerts across Israel, where they will be presenting an eclectic programme featuring Vivaldi's double cello concerto performed by Yablonsky himself and his colleague Yuri Pogoretsky, Piazzolla, Leroy Anderson, and two contemporary composers from Ukraine – Valentin Silvestrov and Alexey Shor.
We sat down with Yablonsky to discuss this upcoming tour, as well as his time with the Kyiv Virtuosi and his musical relationship with Israel.
You are obviously very well integrated into the musical landscape of Israel, having enjoyed a long relationship with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and recently conducted the Israel Philharmonic, as well as having been teaching at the Buchman-Mehta Academy of Music since 2016. How does it feel for you to be mixing your two worlds together, so to speak, by bringing the orchestra on tour through the country?
In a sense it is very much a best of both worlds situation really, because I am deeply engaged in my work with the Kyiv Virtuosi and at the same time I love Israel and performing here so to come here with this orchestra again is something that I’m very much looking forward to, especially after our performance here in 2017 in honour of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. That was a wonderful occasion and I’m sure this one will be a memorable event as well.
How did your collaboration with the Kyiv Virtuosi first begin?
Well in 2014, I was offered the position of chief conductor of the Kyiv Soloists orchestra. I listened to them and fell in love from the first note. They are people who are very passionate about what they do, you can rehearse with them day and night without getting tired – there is such a creative atmosphere at the rehearsals. They are very special – these guys have known each other since they were in secondary school, they studied together in music school and in conservatory, so they understand each other practically without words. Later, the orchestra was reorganised into the Kyiv Virtuosi.
How would you say the orchestra has evolved since then?
Initially it was a chamber ensemble when we first met, but then I turned it into a symphony orchestra, while still leaving the possibility of playing as a chamber ensemble. Since then we’ve recorded seven discs on Naxos, toured the world, travelled all over Europe, performed in Israel 2017, toured in Latin America in 2019, and so many other big projects.
The ongoing war has affected us of course, but we were very lucky because we received a lot of help from our resident composer Alexey Shor. He’s a native of Kyiv who repatriated to Israel many years ago and now lives in the USA, and he helped the orchestra tremendously – when the war started in Ukraine, he took the musicians of Kyiv Virtuosi to Italy together with their families, where they were contracted for a year. Now the orchestra lives in a wonderful place called Chieti not far from Rome - a two-hour drive - and one of Italy's most famous theatres, the Marrucino, is located there, and we are having a season there. There are a lot of concerts, recordings, we go to Switzerland, to Rome, to Florence, to Malta. We give mostly benefit concerts mostly for Ukraine, collect donations, buy bulletproof vests, helmets… it’s all very good work.
Can you tell us a bit more about the programme that you will be presenting in March?
It will be very interesting. I will play the solo part of Alexey Shor's Cello Concerto, it’s a very beautiful and melodic contemporary piece which I think audiences will really like, and then we will perform Silvestrov as well, who is a good friend of ours, he adores us in fact. This is already a huge chunk of Ukrainian culture right here, and then we will also perform Grieg, the suite ‘From Holberg's Time’, Kreisler, Albeniz, Piazzola's ‘Libertango’, and from Ukrainian composer Miroslav Skorik, and then another very unusual opus, the ‘Staccato Chorus’ by the Romanian composer Grigoras Dinic, a piece that has become a favourite encore challenge for violinists, especially in the Jascha Heifetz arrangement; it requires exceptional command of staccato both up and down. And for the encore, a few surprises, about which I'll keep quiet for now.
How often is it that you conduct while also being the soloist in a concert? And do you sometimes prefer to not have a conductor at all?
Oh, it's a sick profession - conducting. As Leo Tolstoy said: conducting is not a profession, it's impudence! If a person plays, for example, Bach's Partita on the violin and a conductor stands next to him, he will already play differently. Because there's a kind of aura coming from the person standing next to him, he doesn't even have to conduct in two or three. Whether I prefer to have a conductor at all depends on the orchestra really. I remember playing Bruch's Kol Nidrei in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra without a conductor, and it was amazing; the huge orchestra sounded like a string quartet! Not all orchestras can do that. Or in May I conducted the Israel Philharmonic, we performed Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and I had a wonderful time. There are orchestras where the musicians will sleep in, come in late and so on because they don't care. And there are other orchestras that want it to be as good as possible, of high quality. Because they respect both the conductor and each other. Like the Kyiv Virtuosi. These guys know everything by heart, especially the chamber orchestra, they do not need a conductor. So if you're talking about the March concerts, I'll play without a conductor.
How are the preparations for this series of concerts going?
Well, I’m in Italy working with the orchestra right now. We have already played the programme of the upcoming tour a hundred times, and rehearsed a hundred times, but we are still preparing very seriously, because this is the mentality of the Kyiv Virtuosi. As I said earlier, they are a very original ensemble of musicians who have known each other from a young age – for about 30 years already now, since most of them are 40 years old. They are like brothers and sisters helping each other in everything, and they take their job very seriously. When I arrive for the first rehearsal, they have already rehearsed it many times before me, which is something you just don’t see anywhere. They are not paid separately for this, but the work is still done and it’s done at the highest level. They even meet on their own, the first violins meeting separately, second violins, violas, etc…. It’s incredible work ethic, and very honestly I can say that this is the best orchestra in Ukraine.