If you are going to put yourself out there, with a whopping great superlative, you’d better know what you’re doing. Calling yourselves the Kyiv Virtuosi is, indeed, a grand moniker that comes with hefty demands. A sort of self-imposed noblesse oblige state of affairs.
Whether founder conductor-cellist Dmitry Yablonsky and the other members of the chamber ensemble are at the top of their game will become apparent to local classical music fans in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Ness Ziona and Herzliya, when the troupe performs here March 4-10.
Yablonsky certainly has the credentials to lead the orchestra in a varied program, which has all the makings of a highly entertaining evening. The temporally expansive set list for the occasion features works by Vivaldi, Romantic Era Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, early 20th-century Spanish composer De Falla and late 19th-century compatriot Isaac Albeniz.
There are also items in the lineup that may be new to most patrons, including charts written by composers from the ensemble’s nominal homeland, such as 52-year-old Alexey Shor, 85-year-old Valentin Silverstrov and Myroslav Skoryk. The latter died in 2020, at the age of 81 and left behind him an eclectic oeuvre that culls from such varied cultural and sonic sources as Welsh, German and East European traditions. Shor, who made aliyah in 1991, although he now resides predominantly in the United States, is the orchestra’s current composer in residence.
The relationship with Shor also came in handy about a year ago. “He has helped us to get residence in Italy,” Yablonsky explained. “Because of the war, he arranged for the group members to stay in Italy for a year, at least until May.” Here’s hoping the violence and human suffering in Ukraine are over by then.
Having Shor on board also informs much of the group’s output, both in terms of live renditions and studio outings. “He has a beautiful cello concerto,” says Yablonsky. “The whole piece is around 25-30 minutes so we are going to do the second movement.”
The Virtuosi is also going to do its bit to document the composer’s offerings. “We are going to record seven CDs, with the Naxos label, of works by Shor,” Yablonsky notes, who also relocated to Israel, although more recently and naturally spends much of his time plying his craft around the world. “We are very excited about that.” The ensemble has already racked up a similar number of albums, in various formats, for the label.
“We have some symphonic repertoire, as well,” he advises. “We did the chamber symphony by Shostakovich and we did Italian arias with a young Azerbaijani singer.” Clearly, the idea is to keep the group’s recording and performance options as variegated as possible.
“We have many different projects that we do,” he adds.
Who is Yablonsky?
Yablonsky brings the requisite training and personal backdrop, to the fray. Born in Moscow to a concert pianist mother and oboist father, the 60-year-old cellist moved to New York with his family at the age of 15. He had already shown promise in the Soviet Union and benefited from some quality instruction there. He furthered his education at the prestigious Juilliard School of Performing Arts in the Big Apple, followed by four years at Yale University where he added conducting to his professional skill set.
Not a bad educational bio to underpin his professional career, which has taken him around the globe and back, performing on hallowed stages with A-lister orchestras. He has worked with our very own Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and when he is not winging his way to some offshore venue or other, he teaches at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University.
Before establishing the Kyiv Virtuosi, Yablonsky served as Chief Conductor of the Kyiv Soloists whose declared credo is to popularize modern Ukrainian composers, such as 80-year-old Yevgeni Stankovych and the aforementioned Skoryk and Silvestrov.
Unfortunately, these days, it is hard to see the name Kyiv on a classical music bill and not think of geopolitics and national identity. Still, despite the significant Ukrainian content of the forthcoming concert tour, Yablonsky says he and the troupe do their best to focus on the music and steer clear of national, if not nationalist, considerations.
He says, on a personal level, he keeps his nose to the grindstone and just tries his best to do the score justice, regardless of origin. “I have immigrated eight times in my life,” he chuckles. “I don’t have the feeling of Ukrainian, Russian, British, Scottish, Irish, American, Japanese, whatever.” Point understood and accepted.
But, presumably, there was some thinking behind the inclusion of, say, Silverstrov’s The Messenger. Or was it purely down to the simple harmonic beauty and enticing fragility of the composer’s writing? “He is a Soviet composer,” Yablonsky notes. “And I was born in the Soviet Union, so I am Ukrainian just as much as he is.” That may be so but I wondered whether Kyiv-born Silverstrov identifies as a Ukrainian, particularly as he responded to regional unrest by writing a work called Prayer for Ukraine.
That was in 2014, when domestic political events sparked the Russo-Ukrainian War. The piece has now taken on added significance and the composer has now become a refugee in Berlin.
There is no denying Silverstrov’s biographical details, nor the ensemble’s title but Yablonsky is first and foremost a musician and is not about to run for the Knesset, Congress or to challenge President Volodymyr Zelensky for his daytime job. He would much prefer to stick to what he does best and for us to enjoy the fruits of his and the ensemble’s efforts without the extraneous stuff.
“Now they have started that Ukrainians are not allowed to play Tchaikovsky during the war. I think that’s what creates the tension. It is like me, a Jew, not playing Schubert [an Austrian] in Germany. I don’t know. Perhaps time heals. You know they are going to build a synagogue in Bayreuth, in 2025,” he chuckles, referencing the location of the famed opera festival in Germany which hosts performances of operas by Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. It was considered a nodal point for Nazi ideology.
Indeed, it would be nice to take a breather from politics and the damaging fallout thereof and just sit back and enjoy the polished delivery of the delightful program by the Kyiv Virtuosi.
For tickets and more information, visit: https://kupatbravo.co.il/announce/Kyiv-Virtuosi-Orchestra.