Hannah Nepil interviews conductor Kirill Karabits ahead of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Southbank Centre in April.
When I call Kirill Karabits, he has just arrived in his native Ukraine, and is taking in the aftermath of recent bloody confrontations. ‘At the moment I am standing and looking at the main square where the main fights were happening four days ago,’ he says. The conductor has his own views on the conflict. ‘The only major problem of Ukraine is that it is geographically located between two huge powers: Russia and Europe, so the western part shouts ‘we are with Europeans’ and the eastern part shouts ‘we want to be with the Russians.’ He himself is from the centre of the country and believes that ‘Ukraine should be accepted as it is. Everybody here speaks Ukrainian and Russian. I don’t want to choose between the two: I like both. And Ukraine is both.’
Though still only 37, Karabits is well-established on the international circuit. He is Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and has worked with ensembles ranging from the Budapest Festival Orchestra, of which he was Assistant Conductor, to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
But as he vehemently insists, ‘I still consider Ukraine as my home.’ Born in Kiev, he decided in his childhood to pursue music as a career. His father was the conductor and composer Ivan Karabyts. ‘He was an important figure and I was always considered to be my father’s son,’ says Karabits. ‘But I also felt that this started to have an impact on me that I didn’t like: whatever I tried to do on my own was always perceived as an achievement of my father.’
With the fall of communism, travel restrictions in Ukraine were relaxed, allowing the teenage Karabits to study in Vienna. It also allowed him to forge his reputation in his own right, in a part of the world where his father was relatively unknown. Karabits laughs as he recalls that, after recording a CD featuring his father’s works, the initial critical reaction went something like: ‘We all know the conductor Kirill Karabits, but did you know that his dad was a famous composer?’ As Karabits says, ‘it happens sometimes in life that things turn around. Black becomes white.’
Along with his father’s works, Karabits has occasionally conducted repertoire by other Ukrainian composers (‘I think it’s interesting for people here to hear this music’) and he speaks with particular admiration of his countryman, the composer Borys Lyatoshynsky. Another interest is exploring neglected works from the distant past: in April, Karabits conducts his own transcription of CPE Bach’s long forgotten St John Passion. Much of his time, however, is committed to the core classical canon. He is soon to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme including Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Steven Isserlis as soloist, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and his enthusiasm for these works is unmistakeable: ‘You could compare Scheherazade to one of those Strauss tone poems or a ballet in which you listen to the music and can visualise exactly what you hear,’ he says. ‘It’s a joy to conduct.’
Kirill Karabits conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of Prokofiev, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 22 April, 7.30pm.