Kirill Karabits © Konrad Kwik
Kirill Karabits
© Konrad Kwik

When Kirill Karabits was appointed Chief Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2009, he thought it was the right place to practise and develop his mainstream repertoire. Ten years later it has become his most adventurous place. “I can experiment and do pieces which I can’t do anywhere else,” he tells me. “The programmes I introduce are received with interest and curiosity by the orchestra and I think the most significant achievement is that the audience, in all our residencies, still believes in us. It’s all a question of balance. Of course the audience wants to hear music they know, but you have to push them a little bit, challenge them. We are mutually supporting each other and the audience joined us on our journey.”

That journey started with a Beethoven cycle, for Karabits the turning point in his growth together with the orchestra. “It’s nothing unusual, but it was a very important element in our relationship. I said ‘If we can find each other in Beethoven, then we can do anything together.’” Not only did they find each other, it was followed by a successful cycle of Prokofiev symphonies in 2014 after which Karabits realised that the audience and the musicians were ready – and hungry – for an even more adventurous step. “I thought discovering unknown masterpieces that got lost in history or for political reasons would be a way to connect to my roots,” the Ukrainian conductor explains. Their Voices from the East series continues to prove to be incredibly popular with both critics and audiences and opened some completely new names to people. “I’d consider Kara Karayev or Boris Lyatoshynsky classical composers, but it’s different in the UK. For Avet Terterian’s Third Symphony we brought two duduk players (an Armenian folk instrument) from Yerevan to Poole. It’s very interesting and special music and the result was absolutely astonishing.”

For the composer’s Fourth Symphony, their orchestral librarian Alastair Simpson had to organise the one handwritten (and unpublished!) score of the first edition from the Terterian Estate in Armenia. But why go to all this trouble? “Because it is a unique piece of music that the composer wrote, the score is still pure. The composer only gives you ideas and directions, but he tells the conductor that he has to shape the piece himself.”

Karabits’ and the audience’s fondest memories of the last ten years are not of the mainstream performances, but of the more unusual ones, programmes that challenged the musicians and listeners alike: Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony sung in Russian, Prokofiev’s Second (“a very difficult piece to listen to, even for musicians”) or a semi-staged version of Salome. Amongst those stellar moments, one shines the brightest: the recording of his father’s concertos for orchestra. “In the Ukraine it’s actually the other way around. There, I am still considered the son of my father.” Ivan Karabits, a student of Lyatoshynsky, was a prolific composer, conductor and professor at the Kiev Conservatory. His concertos combine elements of Mahler, Shostakovich and Ukrainian folk music and represent the traditional concertos for orchestras in the 20th century, starting with Bartók, Lutosławski and Shchedrin. “This music is a showcase in which the orchestra presents all its capacities, all its emotions.”

For a short period during his student years, Karabits followed in his father’s composing footsteps. “It was an important time in my life, but I was always more passionate about conducting. It’s difficult to start a career as a conductor and composition was the closest to it. If you decide to dedicate your life to composition, you need to do only that, you need to have something to say, something new, and I felt that there was so much music composed already.”

“I’ve always been more interested in being the interpreter. Composers don’t create an intimate version of a piece and it is our job to demonstrate what the composer wants. Some composers let you add a little bit more of yourself, others stay away and hide, because everything is in the score already. But it’s not enough to do what’s written in the score, you have to believe in it and tell the whole story. Stravinsky, for example, wrote most of what he wanted into the score; Liszt, on the other hand, gives you complete freedom. He’s not only giving you freedom, he’s asking you to interpret his music. What you see on paper is only a symbolic way of notational ideas that he wants you to experience. You have to put Liszt’s music completely through yourself, otherwise it becomes dull and uninteresting.”

Manuscript of <i>Vor hundert Jahren</i> © Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music
Manuscript of Vor hundert Jahren
© Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music

Liszt also plays a significant role in the BSO’s upcoming season. Together with the British dramaturg Gerard McBurney, Karabits brings to stage the long-lost piece Vor hundert Jahren (A hundred years ago), an orchestral melodrama composed by Liszt to accompany the play by Friedrich Halm. Although its first performance during the festivities celebrating Schiller’s 100th birthday in November 1859 was favourable received, it was never published and only one autograph score survived. “It’s a work for two actors, some visual elements and orchestra. I’ve already conducted the original German version in Weimar [where Karabits has been Music Director for the past three years] and we will perform an English translation [by Richard Stokes] in Poole and London." In the current political climate in the UK, with the country asking again whether it is part of Europe and its culture, Karabits agrees that the work might be quite challenging and provocative. "It’s about the unification of Germany, so there are some open questions…"

For the Beethoven festivities, including the Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican in February, Karabits has his very own approach. “It’s music that pushes the limits. His symphonies are iconic, but you have to make the orchestra vibrate, you have to make the music speak. Masterpieces are sometimes presented like music in a museum. But this music is still very much alive, it still influences today. There’s no such thing as right and wrong, there’s only a convincing element that comes through the energy, the emotional investment of the orchestra. It’s the feeling of doing something on the limit.”

Other Karabits highlights for next season include a semi-staged performance of Elektra, “the culmination of what we’ve already started with Salome”; working with their artist-in-residence, Gabriela Montero; and welcoming some of the BSO’s favourite soloists, including Steven Isserlis.

And his goals for the next ten years? “I’m mainly interested in continuing our series Voices from the East. Performing unknown music doesn’t sound special at all, but every project, every piece has the power to change you. The BSO has always taken risks, they believe in works to become masterpieces. They played the world premiere of Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto and gave the UK premiere of several works by Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Saint-Saëns. I want to broaden the repertoire for symphony orchestras, I want to create something new. The last ten years have been quite a journey, but the journey still continues.”

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This interview was sponsored by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra