Ukrainian pianist Pavlo Gintov – “a real poet of the keyboard” (Marty Lash) – has built a successful musical career in America, is a laureate of many prizes of prestigious competitions, has performed concerts all over the world with leading orchestras on the stages of the Berlin Philharmonic and Kyiv Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall in New York, Verdi National Theater in Milan, Kioi Hall in Tokyo, etc. However, he remains an active promoter of Ukrainian culture in the world, “restores” the forgotten names of Ukrainian artists, arranges concerts and CD recordings, the programs of which are dedicated to the works of Ukrainian composers. At the same time, the artist takes a clear civic position, is the organizer and participant of numerous protest actions, condemning Russian policy and its aggression against Ukraine.
In search services, for the most part, you can find a professional factual biography of a pianist: where he was born, studied and what he achieved in his musical career. Therefore, let’s “listen” about everything in more detail from the first person in a large interview.
Let’s start with your childhood. What were the atmosphere in your family and the principles of upbringing? What motivated you to choose the profession of pianist?
Pavlo Gintov: Probably the most interesting thing is that my parents are not musicians. However, my grandmother (violinist) and grandfather (violist) on my mother’s side played in the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine all their lives. I regularly heard from my grandmother how hard the profession of a musician is. Despite the fact that three of her children had a musical education, she did not allow anyone to continue playing the instrument seriously. She also always added that “my daughter (my mother) is so unwise that both her children (my sister and I) became professional musicians” (laughs).
My grandmother also collected vinyl records: there were really many of them. Now it is even difficult to imagine that we had such a great musical experience in childhood. I have also had several video tapes that lost their color and quality after being played over and over by me. Children now watch cartoons an infinite number of times – that’s what happened to me with those cassettes. Now I think what was wrong with me (laughs). I remember that these were recordings of concerts by Horovyts and Rubinstein.
We also had an old Bechstein grand piano. I started looking for some melodies on it when I was still small. That’s how I started studying at a specialized music school (now Kyiv State Music Lyceum named after M.V. Lysenko – A.Ch.) with Iryna Barynova. Since then, everything has been resolved.
My upbringing was such that I understood from childhood that I should play the piano for a certain time every day. Self-discipline and a sense of duty were a family “habit”. That is, to work even when you don’t really want to.
I think your debut at the age of 12 is something that happened precisely because of self-discipline combined with talent. Because performing Mozart’s piano concerto with an orchestra in the Kyiv Philharmonic at such an age is truly impressive. After that, you performed this concert almost all over the world! Tell how it happened.
Pavlo Gintov: I still cannot fully understand how this happened to me. I just helped the conductor by playing this concerto at her conservatory exam. However, it was an incredible thing for me, because the opportunity to play with an orchestra happened to me for the first time in my life. And after this exam, her teacher Roman Isakovich Kofman offered me to perform this concert with the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra under his direction.
I have a video: by the way, it’s not bad at all (laughs). Of course, I was very nervous and I didn’t really like my performance. However, re-listening to it several years later, I began to wonder: would I be able to play certain parts as well now?
You studied in three countries: at a music school in Kyiv (Kyiv State Music Lyceum named after M.V. Lysenko), at a conservatory in Moscow (Moscow P. I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory) and at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Compare the peculiarities of the educational process of each of the educational institutions.
Pavlo Gintov: The systems are very different. They have good and bad things. On the one hand it seems that there is more freedom in the American system. Because in educational institutions in Moscow and Kyiv (they were similar to each other) there were specific lectures that everyone had to attend. In America, students themselves choose which courses they will take. Of course, there are also several mandatory subjects related to your specialty. But you are also offered a large number of different electives: they can be detailed courses about Wagner’s operas or Beethoven’s sonatas, or something general, such as a foreign language, the history of cinematography, social disciplines, etc.
However, there is another side. In Moscow and Kyiv, you take each exam personally, accordingly, the teacher knows who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are. In America, almost all exams are in test form. Before that, the professor gives lectures to 100-200 people, not knowing almost any of them personally. Yes, this is a more objective evaluation, but with such a system there is no possibility to discuss, propose, or disagree with something. Of course, when I was already studying for a doctor’s degree in America, where there were only eight students, the communication was more personal.
However, in Moscow, teachers encouraged non-standard thinking so that you try to find an answer that is not in the books. For example, I had a phenomenal music harmony teacher – A. Myasoyedov. I studied with his textbook in Kyiv. I remember really trying hard to complete the tasks in his textbook using all the “standard” rules. And when I came to his lessons, he asked me: “Are you a musician? How about Debussy? Can he also prohibit parallel fifths?”. In other words, his textbook was designed to add creativity to the tasks. Here is such a paradoxical thing: in Moscow there were teachers who also taught freedom.
“propaganda works on such a large scale only when people have an inner desire to obey it”
Your studies at the Moscow Conservatory were during the Orange Revolution, right? What were the reactions and attitudes of colleagues in Moscow to these events?
Pavlo Gintov: I want to start by saying that every summer, when I was two years old, I came to Moscow to visit my great-grandmother (she was also a pianist, a professor at the Gniesin Academy of Music). That is, to some extent, this city was my home. However, during my studies I was considered a foreigner: I attended all classes with Russians, but I belonged to a different list.
I was lucky with the teachers there, because many of them were very good people. I remember Myasoyedov coming to the lecture on March 5 and saying: “Today is the day of Stalin’s death. I would make it an annual holiday. However, unfortunately, my favorite composer Prokofiev died on this day and I cannot afford it.” Or another situation. In Moscow, there was a wonderful professor from the concertmaster class – Vazha Chachava. He was a Georgian – a phenomenal musician, but with an “explosive” character that even some professors feared.
There was another Ukrainian woman with me during one of the exams. She didn’t have time to play anything yet, when he asked her: “Who did you vote for in the elections?”. Perhaps she thought it would somehow help her, so she answered that Yanukovych. He blushed all over and said: “You study at the Moscow Conservatory, and you vote for this convict and bandit?! Get out of here so that I don’t see you!”, and still did not allow her to pass this exam. Of course, in America, he would be immediately dismissed from the educational institution (laughs). By the way, he lived all his life in Russia, but in 2008 he returned to Georgia. Only later did I realize that he was indeed a man of progressive views and could not live in Russia after its invasion of Georgia.
In general, Moscow had a very negative attitude towards what was happening in Ukraine at that time. I think it was there that I heard the slogan “Glory to Ukraine” for the first time, when I answered people near our embassy that I voted for Yushchenko. Most of my friends also supported me with the words: “Well done. You have people who are ready to fight for freedom. It’s impossible for us.”
Do you still communicate with any of them? There are those who support Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea, and has anything changed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion?
Pavlo Gintov: No, I don’t talk to almost anyone. Until 2014, I still cooperated with them, they came to see me in America or in Kyiv, and some even posted the truth about everything that was happening in Ukraine on social networks. However, when it came to Crimea, everything unexpectedly “turned upside down”: Ukrainians became fascists, and Maidan became a coup.
Many people say that this is exactly how propaganda is “set up”. But, I think, it works on such a large scale only when people have an inner desire to obey it. Although it was a shock to me at the time: not only because imperial views became more important than cultural or humane ones, but also because the friendship of many years turned out to be so weak.
I agree with you: for a long time, I wondered how such a large number of people could be susceptible to propaganda. But didn’t you want to stay in Moscow after your studies?
Pavlo Gintov: It was, to a certain extent. However, the most important reason for my studies in Moscow was my professor – the famous pianist Lev Naumov. But at the end of my studies he died. Therefore, I finished my last year with his assistant – Danyil Kopylov.
What motivated you to move to America to continue your education?
Pavlo Gintov: Despite the fact that education in America is extremely expensive, at the same time, there are scholarships in private universities that fully cover your education, and often also accommodation. Despite the fact that almost everyone who can pay can join them – it is not always the one who plays very well. It is not profitable for them. Therefore, in order to maintain the appropriate “level” of their educational institution, they will help those who “convince them of their importance” in their education.
I passed the entrance exams at three educational institutions. But in Manhattan, I was offered to pay for language courses at Columbia University, accommodation and even a special card for the student canteen. Then I was even a little happy that I knew English so poorly (laughs). That is why I decided to stay in New York.
To what extent is the classical music industry developed in America in terms of funding?
Pavlo Gintov: I think the system is quite correct here. There is a law that an organization or an individual receives favorable conditions in benefits and taxation if they donate money to support the arts. That’s why it’s “developed” quite well here.
What is New York for you? Does its internationality, multiculturalism, rhythm of life affect your creative expression?
Pavlo Gintov: I really liked New York. The impression is that the whole world is mixed here. You can hear all the accents, see people of various cultures and attend concerts with the participation of folk instruments from any country. I think this city is a prototype of the future world, when it will finally be all mixed up (laughs).
The rhythm itself, of course, gives a boost to energy. I don’t live in New York, but on the other side of the Hudson River – in New Jersey. And when I don’t go to New York for a long time, I start to have a little “depression”. But a few minutes are enough to come to it and just observe purposeful and energetic people. You are charged with it. Until now, this has always been the case with me.
After so many years of professional activity in America, can you consider yourself an American artist?
Pavlo Gintov: I always call myself a Ukrainian pianist. The most important thing is who you feel yourself to be. Chopin lived in Paris, but he probably would have been surprised if someone called him a French composer. Oleksandr Koshyts, Solomiya Krushelnytska, or Fedir Yakymenko lived abroad, but always considered themselves Ukrainian musicians.
In 2015, you received a Doctor of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music. For your scientific work, you have chosen, in my opinion, an interesting research in the field of musical genres – the genre of fantasy. For both the composer and the performer, fantasy is a “type of expression” that gives a certain degree of freedom to express one’s thoughts and feelings. Tell about your work in more detail.
Pavlo Gintov: You are very right. Fantasy is a special genre that is the musical embodiment of freedom. I was interested in researching how this “freedom” was felt by different composers in different countries. I became interested in this genre when I was teaching Beethoven’s Fantasia op. 77. It is a rather strange work, and some musicians consider it simply unsuccessful. However, I think that if Beethoven considered it a failure, he wouldn’t give it an opus number. I found an explanation for myself: it’s like a self-portrait, a variety of emotions that are often illogical and disordered. If you analyze the work from this point of view, it becomes perfectly clear. For me, this is just a fantastic fantasy, after which I realized that my dissertation will be devoted to this genre.
The work consisted of three large sections. The first is a chronological history of all the piano fantasias I could find. In the second, there is a detailed analysis of the fantasy of Bach, Beethoven and Scriabin. The third chapter is devoted to considerations about what fantasy means, how it has changed over time, and what categories of this genre can be distinguished.
The process of writing the work was interesting for me, but very difficult because of the use of scientific English. I could sit for hours on one sentence, trying to find a good analogue of words for the scientific style. And as a result, my supervisor didn’t help me generate ideas so much, but just corrected my English, including the same sentences I worked so hard on (laughs). I think it would not be easy for me even now, despite the fact that I don’t have any problems with English now.
Later, my repertoire accumulated so many fantasies that they would be enough for a whole solo concert. That’s how the idea came to record a disc, which also included the Sonata-Fantasia by Fedir Yakymenko (an outstanding Ukrainian composer, one of the prominent representatives of musical neo-romanticism of the 20th century, pianist, teacher, music theorist – A. Ch.). This piece is extremely beautiful and unlike anything else. Yakymenko’s music was not performed for a very long time, there was not a single commercial recording of this Sonata, although it was written more than a hundred years ago.
You are actively engaged in the interpretation and popularization of Ukrainian piano music. In your opinion, which of the Ukrainian composers is “received” the best abroad?
Pavlo Gintov: It is difficult to specify. I play many concerts of exclusively Ukrainian composers, but more often I look for a balance when choosing a program: I also need familiar popular works that will “interest” the audience in advance.
And now I organize more and more concerts-lectures, where I talk a little about Ukrainian composers. And I consider this a very reliable way for foreign listeners to get acquainted with Ukrainian culture, because this is how a strong “connection” is created with what is heard – emotional and informational.
I will also tell an interesting story about my recent concert in Japan. I think the organizers made a mistake by asking me to play a program of exclusively “commonly known” works – Mozart, Chopin, or Beethoven. I was a little indignant, but equally politely replied: “Okay, but I will include one Lysenko’s Rhapsody in the program. “They reluctantly agreed. The concert aroused interest, gathered a large audience, television and journalists. And what do you think they asked me the most about? Of course, about Lysenko! And for the encore, I also played Bortkevych! (laughs). Therefore, they are certainly interested in Ukrainian music.
I agree with you. However, I repeatedly hear the assertion that the war to a certain extent contributes to drawing attention to Ukrainian art today.
Pavlo Gintov: Yes, that’s true. Of course, I would like this to happen without war. But Ukraine is now in the center of attention, and that is why we should popularize Ukrainian music even more, and at the same time, talk about it in more detail.
What is the dominant feature in your performing art – the exact reproduction of the composer’s style or the demonstration of an individual performing style?
Pavlo Gintov: This is a difficult question. However, I will say that the best interpretation always has logic and a lot of knowledge. It is necessary to be interested in musical analysis and the history of music in order to build certain logical chains: why did the composer write this music in this particular period, why does he have this particular musical language, style and form. For me, the most important thing is the composer and the reproduction of his style. But no matter what you do for it, the performance of the work will be your interpretation to a certain extent.
Politics is intertwined with your life, given your clear civic position. This also applies to your frequent participation in various actions in support of Ukraine, starting from 2014. Do you have many like-minded people in America and are there non-Ukrainians among them?
Pavlo Gintov: By the way, for some time protests were not organized: due to the pandemic, there were no events with the participation of Russian artists. And since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukrainian territory, many of its “figures” simply don’t come here. It’s wrong to be happy about it, because the casualties are insanely high, but we did achieve some victory thanks to our protests.
We have a very international group, among which, in addition to Ukrainians, there are Georgians, Belarusians and even Russians. Sometimes there are about 50 people at the events, but there are always 15-20. We often had to split into different events, but we never missed a single one. I remember one day a tourist from France joined us, who, upon returning home, began to organize similar protests there. That’s why the results are real.
Do the Americans see the blame for the war in Ukraine in the cultural part of Russia too? I mean, do they separate culture from politics?
Pavlo Gintov: I think that now, for the most part, Americans are used to saying that culture and politics are different things. Despite the fact that America has its own “rich” history of this issue. During the First World War, American musicians refused to play German works, and people complained about German figures (the chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the German Carl Muck, even ended up in an American concentration camp). After the Second World War, some were simply not allowed on the territory of America, and veterans and Jews organized large protest actions against those suspected of collaborationism.
Today, however, especially with a system in which many large-scale cultural institutions in America are controlled by Russian finance… that is not the case. What can we say, if in recent years it was a normal situation for them, when SberBank of Russia “buys” Carnegie Hall for a week, during which the Mariinsky Theater plays there every day and Russian artists loyal to Putin perform. And at that time on Brighton Beach, Russian-speaking people were given free tickets so that later on Russian-language television it would be shown as a triumph, sold out, the happiness of Americans because Russia “came” there. It goes without saying that this country has always used culture as a powerful propaganda weapon. But, unfortunately, it is very difficult to find people in America who have a “solid” understanding of this.
A few blitz questions:
It’s always the composer I’m playing at that particular moment.
I have always been drawn to books related to the Second World War – Remarque, Hemingway, Feuchtwagner. Although I never thought I could see everything described in them with my own eyes…
What kind of music do you listen to in your everyday life?
My favorite Fitzgerald is just an incredible artist who always “transports” me to other worlds. Especially if I need to deal with anxiety. And to be honest, I don’t have time for the others. I want to be in silence more often.
If not the profession of a musician, then what?
I think the profession of a teacher. I still teach a lot in music schools: piano, lectures on music history and music analysis. I really like it too.
What would you say is your main achievement at this moment?
If we are not talking about creative things, then, of course, my children are the main achievement. And in my musical career, these are the records that I make and will continue to make. I really want to believe that this is my achievement. Because sometimes I am asked why I do this: they do not bring any profit. However, there is a more important goal for all Ukrainian musicians – to play and record the works of our composers. So that the whole world knows them as Chopin, Liszt or Debussy are known. I really want to do everything I can for that.