: 'I believe in Ukraine, that's why I am here' - Russian-born conductor and cellist
Dmitry Yablonsky Dmitry Yablonsky Grammy nominated conductor and cellist

13:04 Apr. 25, 2016

'I believe in Ukraine, that's why I am here' - Russian-born conductor and cellist

Grammy nominated conductor, cellist and conductor Dmitry Yablonsky, photo courtesy - social media

Famous Dmitry Yablonsky explains why he likes working with Ukrainian musicians and why he believes in the country's future

Grammy nominated conductor and cellist Dmitry Yablonsky entered Moscow's Central School of Music at age six, and made his concert debut as a cellist at age nine. He immigrated with this family to the United States in 1977. His extensive career as a concert virtuoso took him around the globe.

As a cellist, Yablonsky performed at the world's top stages including the Carnegie Hall, La Scala, Moscow Great Hall, Louvre, and many others.

He also conducted many orchestras all over the world like Belgian National Orchestra, Netherlands North Orchestra, Holland Symphonia, Russian State Orchestra, Orchestre National d'Ile de France, Israel Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

A few years ago he came to Kyiv, where later he became a conductor of the Ukraine-based orchestra 'Kyiv Virtuosi'. Ukraine Today wants to figure out what makes the great master choose Ukraine and what he thinks about our country's present and future.   


Dmitry Yablonsky,  photo courtesy - social media

How do you manage to combine different professions and different musical styles? 

I think our programme is not so classical – it is rather popular classical. We do some other programmes – we play jazz, combining things with jazz is also great. But jazz is a different profession. Not many classical musicians can perform jazz. I consider myself a classical musician. If you are a cello player, it doesn't necessarily mean that you will become a good conductor, it is a different profession. I started conducting quite early, I was 25-26 years old. Some people come to it later, and it doesn't become their second nature, so to speak. For me, it was much easier. I was fortunate enough to have many experiences, recorded many CDs, and conducted many orchestras all over the world.

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Classical music is part of life, it is not entertainment. Arts have to be part of everybody's life, whether they like it or not. Kids need to be educated, then they decide later on whether they like it or not. People know the concerts, they experience certain things, they forget about their every day's problems. Life goes on. People who lost their close ones, they can remember, they can cry during the concert, it is also very positive – it is not that you need to smile all the time. You grow as a person when you cry, you grow as a person when you laugh.  

Farhad Badalbayli & The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra "The Sea", with Dmitry Yablonsky as a conductor

A few years ago you had a proposal to be a conductor for Yuri Bashmet's orchestra New Russia. Why did you choose to go to Ukraine and start working in Kyiv instead?

I was a principal guest conductor of the New Russia team. Yuri Bashmet (a Russian conductor, musician and public figure) and I are old friends. Now we speak a little bit less because I am in Ukraine, and he is in Russia. It is all about politics. It is really very unfortunate… 

Many media were inclined to think that it was a political decision. They said you protested against the notorious letter written in support of President Putin's actions in Crimea and signed by many Russian celebrities, including Vladimir Spivakov and Yuri Bashmet.

There is a famous unwritten law in Norway that says ‘don't think that you are better than your neighbour.' There is a very difficult balance. I think that people who signed this petition against Ukraine for the President of the Russian Federation – today it is Putin, tomorrow it is Mr Ex, or Mrs Ex – depend more on the Russian government than I personally do. My life has been a little bit more independent than theirs. 

You were born in Moscow, in the Soviet times, but moved as a child with your mother to the U.S. in 1977. This move was dictated by some political necessity...  

I was born in Moscow. How dare I say something against my Motherland? Being born in Moscow is absolutely fantastic. I was six and I was going to the best school at that time, maybe – the Central Music School. Then we were leaving, it was horrible, we were denied a visa to leave. At that time, when I came to New York, if there was a button to destroy the Soviet Union, I would push it. After ‘perestroika' it was easier for me to come to Moscow and perform there. All those people who were KGB agents, who worked for the (Soviet) government and who were telling us that we are traitors, have become our friends, because we lived in the West…

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Immediately after we applied for a visa to leave, my mother was kicked out from the (Moscow) Conservatory as a professor, as a teacher and she lost all her concerts. She had to sell her piano so we could eat. We had an empty apartment; my mom was borrowing money to buy some food. Sometimes somebody called her saying: "Tell your son not to go outside, we will kill him". For eight months I was sitting in the apartment without leaving. So, you can understand what ‘love-hate' relationship I have with Russia – people are wonderful all over the world, people are horrible all over the world… I don't think Russians are worse than any other nation. I don't think they love their children less than Ukrainians do, but suddenly I don't understand why we are divided. I would refuse to judge Bashmet or Spivakov that hard, and of course, I can say many things against the system.  

Beethoven - Piano, Violin and Cello Concerto, Dmitry Yablonsky, conductor and soloist, cello

In 2014 you went to the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine and performed in Mariupol when the city was under fire. Tell us more about this experience. Were you not scared of going there?

Living in Israel we have this every day - we have terror acts every day. But nowadays when you see what's happening in Brussels, in Paris, I think Israel is probably the safest place in the world to live because people are used to you. They are always on alert, there is a phenomenal secret police system always trying to control.

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We (the Kyiv Virtuosos team) went to Mariupol, it was my idea. I did not take a separate limousine; I went there by bus with everybody. It took us 15 hours to get to Mariupol from Kyiv. There were military posts, checkpoints, but we did go through. The city was very clean, there were roses everywhere. But at night after the concert we were sitting in the hotel lobby outside, and we heard the bombing about 10-15 km away. It was a little bit scary, even though we live in Israel and there was a war two years ago on March, but Israel has a special system to protect against bombs. Here (in Ukraine) there is no such system… Still it was wonderful, and I am dying to have a festival there (in Mariupol).

What is the biggest challenge you are currently facing up in Ukraine? (Dmitry says that most of people left the ‘Kyiv Soloists' orchestra to stay with him and formed another team – 'Kyiv Virtuosi')

Now we have a private orchestra, which is called ‘Kyiv Virtuosi'. The biggest challenge we are facing now is regular salary. It is not that we need a sponsor or somebody to throw us a suitcase of cash, but I really hope that maybe some company… We play concerts in Ukraine on a regular basis, 10 concerts a month, which is lot. We are going to my festival in Gabala, Azerbaijan, at the end of July. We will rehearse here (in Ukraine) and we will expand our orchestra – it will be a symphony orchestra. Then we will go to Switzerland, Spain, and France in August. And we are talking about the South America.   

Can Ukrainian musicians be competitive on the global stage?

It is a big understatement. The Vienna Chamber Orchestra is considered one of the best high-standard orchestras in the world and I would say that Ukrainian musicians (Kyiv Virtuosi) can compete it. 

Talking about the philharmonic society… First of all, there should be a new hall built in Kyiv, because the (current) philharmonic hall offers just 600 seats, it is really not for the symphonic concerts. Sometimes you have a concert in the philharmonic society, and 15-20 people show up. For example, some American musician comes (to perform) and some American company supports them, and they make a huge production either at the opera or in the philharmonic society. They don't really count on the tickets sold. But if you do sell the tickets, it should be 10% of the budget – not 100%. It is only a small fraction. It should be different things – it should be the city, the government, a private sector, it should be many things together. And of course, you have to be organising… To me it is even a more challenge that it is so difficult.   


Kyiv Virtuosos performing jazz in Ukraine's capital

Recently the Netherlands held the referendum on the Ukraine-E.U. Association Agreement. 61% of Dutch voters said 'No' to ratifying this deal. Do you think the vote will prevent Ukraine from deepening its ties with Europe? What will be the impact?

I think many governments around the world are waiting for the Ukrainian government to settle down.  It has been such turmoil for the past 25 years that everybody had enough and here too, starting with Ukraine. 

The Dutch history is very violent. Now they are democrats, they have this beautiful court in Hague and staff… I would take it with a grain of salt. We, people, in general are violent, the Netherlands is no exception. They voted against (Ukraine-E.U. deal), because it is their verbal violence that is left from their history. 

Have you noticed that people in Western Europe and the U.S. changed their attitude towards Ukraine during the past two years? Is Ukraine becoming more visible? 

Because what's happening in Russia and corruption, not everywhere, but people are very sympathetic to Ukraine. They hear about these billionaires coming out from Russia… How many schools and hospitals you can build with this money, how many kids you can help, how many medications you can buy, how many roads you can fix. I personally don't like to accept it – that there such a corruption, such a difference in life standards. There is a minimum we need to have. The Israeli system is also not perfect, but everyone who lives in Israel legally has a phenomenal health care – free. 


Dmitry Yablonsky,  photo courtesy - social media

Now you are a citizen of Israel. During your life time you changed a number of resident countries. Being a cosmopolitan, where, nevertheless, did or do you feel at home? 

I immigrated seven times in my life. I came to New York, I grew up in New York. Manhattan is my home. Kyiv is also my home; I come here every month for the past three years. I live in Barcelona, in Paris, in Bergen; I spent four years in Italy. But Holland and London are also home. Travelling all the time, you feel everywhere at home.

Still now when I go through a passport control, I get nervous, I have cold sweat. This is from my childhood. When I was a child in the Soviet Union, I came to see some people off, they were immigrating. There was a mother of some lady, she 80 years old, and she was wearing a coat with a fur collar. The border control policeman came to her and said: you are going to the West, you are betraying us, so you won't need the fur collar. In front of everyone in Sheremetyevo (airport in Moscow), he ripped it off – just in front of me. She was almost crying. I will never forget it. These people make me really nervous. Now they have become oligarchs, democrats, influential people… We tend to forget, but it is not right. 

Dmitry considers corruption to be the biggest problem Ukraine is facing up... 

I do not necessarily agree with the (Ukrainian) Government and what was happening here. I visited some hospitals here and I had a tear in my eye. People (are kept) in more than terrifying conditions. You see these expensive cars in the street, the country is dying of hunger, yet the basics are not taken care of. I think the Government is to blame probably. The Government is supposed to be working for normal (regular) people – people who get up at 7 am working every day, get their salaries and want to live on that salary. Instead of doing something outside salary to survive – this is not democracy. The system in the U.S. is not the best – still when you go to buy a car and give USD 10,000 cash, immediately the car dealership sends a letter to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service - the U.S. government agency responsible for tax collection and tax law enforcement) – where do you get this money? You see cars here (in Ukraine) for hundred thousands of dollars, do they pay taxes on this - probably, not… I suppose it is the place to start from. In the States, it is better to report than hide your income. 

Corruption is the biggest problem Ukraine is facing up now. In Ukraine, I am sure, there is a huge budget to be used for people, which disappears somewhere.  


Do you believe in Ukraine's bright future?

Of course, I do. If I didn't I would not be here. People have such strength in them. But how much would they take? I would say to Ukrainians – don't be afraid to stand up for your rights. All over the world, we are afraid of opening our mouth and saying – it is not ok for me, this is where I cross the line. The consequences could be very difficult. But the human race has a remarkable talent to survive in the most extreme situations. A person who has a job, who makes very little money and buys bread and milk in a store, he is scared to lose that. He keeps his mouth shut. I think that's a main problem. When we start to say – listen, I am a human being; I deserve to have a decent life. The best example is when 'Kyiv Virtuosi' stood up to 'Kyiv Soloists' and said – not more, we had enough (Yuri says that later on the whole story will be revealed to public). I don't think in any European or American city this would happen. This is why I am here. This is a phenomenal step of the independent Ukrainian government when people say - this is enough, you pay us, we risk us and children struggling for our bread, but we can't take it anymore. 

Anna Azarova, for Ukraine Today 




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