Ukrainian violinist Myroslava Khomik is a winner of international competitions, a performer on the renowned stages of North and South America, in Europe and Asia for many years. After studying in her homeland, she went through performing education in the United States and defending her doctoral thesis on the identity of Ukrainian music. Today, the musician regularly performs with the best orchestras, has become the author of masterclasses for children and youth, and is the founder of the music festival. Myroslava’s priorities include chamber music and music by contemporary authors. Read about her long-distance routes and personal guidelines — in our interview.
Myroslava, there are many noteworthy Ukrainian cities mentioned in your biography. You were born in Crimea, then studied in Lviv. How did it come up?
My mother is from the Ternopil region and my father is from Volyn, but they met in Crimea. At that time, having cultural life was especially difficult for Ukrainians there. At home, of course, we spoke Ukrainian, followed Ukrainian traditions, but outside our house, everything was foreign and met with tension. Yes, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union there was a certain revival, and I started attending a Ukrainian-language Sunday school that was located far away from my home, though.
From time to time we were walking down the street, and I could wonder, “Oh, these people speak Ukrainian!”. We made friends with several Ukrainian families, but my parents recognized that I really lacked communication in my native language. All education was in Russian, the programs were still made by Soviet standards, children at school could mock our language… Compared to the western part of Ukraine, the situation in Crimea changed too slowly. Now I realize how traumatic it was. Maybe not that much, but subconsciously you always felt inferior and could not express yourself, could not be the way you are. For that reason, my parents decided to return to mainland Ukraine, so I could go to a Ukrainian school.
Are your parents musicians? How did you choose this path?
Absolutely no. My mother worked as a nurse. My father is a painter and a teacher. He’s the one our family love for music came from — being young, my father had a friend, a pianist, who taught him listening to classical music. For my mother, who had not had access to it, music became a great discovery, and later she even took up collecting all the available records.
By that time, my dad already had a son who was graduating from music school. So even as a baby, I heard these musical sounds. At the age of 4, my parents decided that I will go to music school. And when they let me choose, “violin or piano?”, I was sure to say “a violin”. That’s how the life path was chosen.
And, after return, you entered the Lviv Music Boarding School?
Not quite right. It was a long journey. We first moved to Lutsk, where my dad’s whole family resided, and I studied there for 3 years at a music school and a specialized math school. I didn’t study in art school for long, because my violin teacher, Ihor Smetanin, gave me a choice. But it has been my instrument since childhood! I couldn’t imagine myself without a violin. Therefore, after 9th grade, I entered the School of Music.
The famous Oleksandr Negoda became my teacher. He was demanding and fair, and when he occasionally appeared in the corridor, not only string players but all students tried to play as cleanly as possible. Later, I missed his harsh teaching methods.
So one day my mother, accidentally hearing about admission to the Boarding School, on the same day offered to try and pass the exam. I’ve been practising for 6 hours, and then by night train, we went to Lviv. Oksana Tsap became my teacher. Such things must be planned in advance, but obviously, it should have happened. I lived in the Boarding School until the 11th grade.
And how did you get to an American university?
The trajectory of many of my classmates at that time was either any of the Ukrainian conservatories or European high schools like Austria and Germany. And I had hoped, much of a definite plan, that I would go to Vienna or Berlin as well. It just so happened that earlier my violinist brother had met Mischa Lefkowitz, a professor at the University of California, a violinist at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And when I was finishing my Lviv education, my brother remembered: “What about California? ”. And I laughed, “First we need to find out where California is. ”
Weren’t you afraid that perhaps education in America differs from European education, for example, schools and traditions are more ancient there?
In fact, American university education is extremely strong. After receiving my record, the professor promised to help with the scholarship (it is given to pay tuition) and to find a separate sponsor for other expenses. Chapman University — Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music — is one of the best private universities in the States, where studying is highly expensive. I passed TOEFL and entered. This was the fastest prospect, which came true easily. And I came there all by myself.
So it was a university bachelor’s degree? What is the structure of high music education in the States?
The American system differs from the Ukrainian one: there are conservatories, and there are universities, which separately include the School of Music. I went there to get a Bachelor of Music Performance. The advantage of the university is a wide choice of various humanities and natural sciences. However, I studied in a math class! — and, having checked the necessary knowledge, I was credited with additional subjects.
The first year, in any case, it is necessary to settle down. America seemed to be another world. But in the second or third year, I began to understand that I was lucky to be in university — I could attend what I was always interested in: art history, history of religion… There was no feeling of overload: my progress went comprehensively, not only in theory and harmony. I also took piano classes, but due to the early preparation, I passed them successfully, which made time to study and play competitions.
Our last course was during the first years of the Russian-Ukrainian War. I talked a lot with my colleagues, professors, tried to explain what’s happening
However, is there a practice that teaching with a performer’s diploma is impossible?
Yes. However, university education is valued: if you have a bachelor’s degree in one subject, you can enter a master’s degree in any other. I entered another university for a master’s degree (before taking a year off and working as a freelance artist). And then there was a doctorate (the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and receiving a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) degree.
You mentioned freelancing. What opportunities exist for the violinist?
There are many. Nowadays, more figures are moving to the West Coast, and many believe that Los Angeles is culturally improving as New York was in its 1970s and 1980s. The film industry, of course, gives a workplace, but also classical music composers come to record, to perform. Actually, there is a demand for modern music. People are not frightened of contemporary.
Then I worked at the university as a chamber music assistant, which for me is a very important format of making music, perhaps my favourite, because that’s how a real musician is brought up — gaining experience working with colleagues and studying all parts of the scores. I had my own quartet, the Royce String Quartet, which was inspired by Guillaume Sutre, one of Europe’s most famous professors, who was the first violin of the Ysaye Quartet. Also, a special experience was the collaboration with famous musicians Movses Pogossian, Antonio Lysy and Richard O’Neill.
How can the artist himself collaborate with composers?
In the last year of my doctoral studies, I started having solo concerts more often and thinking about commissioning authors. Several times I have received an invitation to play with a string chamber orchestra, and the repertoire for it is too small — literally two concerts, the rest is Vivaldi or Bach. One of the first composers was my classmate Josh Rodriquez, who went to PhD (Philosophy Doctor, a degree for composers and musicologists).
Our last course was during the first years of the Russian-Ukrainian War. I talked a lot with my colleagues, professors, tried to explain what’s happening. It even seems to me that the diaspora was more depressed than the people in Ukraine because here you are powerless to help. I had exams, a dissertation, preparation for concerts, and I could not sleep at night. And it was then that Josh conceived the “Contra spem spero” Violin Concerto as a tribute to Ukraine, it was important to both of us.
Only when he had finished the work that he admitted that he had given it a name in honour of Lesya Ukrainka‘s poetry. I was impressed! I did not mention her. But I mentally grew up with Lesya, she was my inspiration. At that time, not quite aware of it, but I always had the question of why there are so few women in Ukrainian culture whose work is presented and talked about.
I wonder how he organized the Concert: in an arched form, where the first and third parts reflect each other, and in the middle — the intonation of Ukrainian folk songs. However, Josh was so inspired that he wrote it in 30 minutes, so, according to the agreement, he had to cut it in half: this makes it easier to enter the work into programs. So far, a soft premiere has been made, because the last year has suspended our plans to record, but there is a plan to do it in Kyiv because the work belongs to this city spiritually.
Returning to doctoral studies. How did the introduction take place, and what was the impetus for writing a dissertation on the topic of Ukrainian identity in music? (“Ukrainian Identity in Modern Chamber Music: A Performer’s Perspective on Valentyn Silvestrov’s Violin Sonata “Post Scriptum” and its Interpretation in the Context of Ukrainian Chamber Work”, see here, — D. S.)
Upon admission, the university conducts an interview with the intention of assessing the potential dissertation’s relevance. The most important idea was, of course, Ukrainian music, because I saw how little it was known in America. My topic aroused great interest during the first defense, especially in one of the musicologists, the famous Elisabeth Le Guin.
Finally, Elizabeth, together with my official chair, Movses Pogossian, directed my studies. When working on a dissertation, the first unspoken rule is a university direction of research. But I was one of those who expanded the range of searches, through the advice, setting out to show the ancientness of our tradition.
The theme was born out of a desire to inscribe Ukrainian themes in the epoch-making world development and to draw the attention of musicologists and performers outside Ukraine to important modern composers, less known for historical reasons. In the end, of course, I created a concert program from the studied works and called it “Music of Protest“: during the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, I had to embody it from a musical point of view.
I have had many cases where musicians not only ask for scores but also provide discussions. It gives people an understanding that there is such a great culture
Is it common for international students to research topics related to the culture of their countries?
Yes, and this is encouraged, but I think it still depends on the university, the climate in its team. For me, it was a favourable environment.
UCLA is one of the oldest in America, it’s supported by the state. By the way, Arnold Schoenberg taught there, one of the halls is named after him, and the family still works closely with the department. Many of the figures who are important to us at some point lived or performed in Los Angeles and left their mark on the local cultural life.
How do you observe the public response to Ukrainian music?
People are very interested. When I have the opportunity to include works by Ukrainian composers in the program, I always do it, and if I don’t have this chance, I play Skoryk’s “Melody” as an encore. After that, everyone surely asks what it is and where it comes from. I have had many cases where musicians not only ask for scores but also provide discussions. It gives people an understanding that there is such a great culture. I consider myself its ambassador there, because, in fact, if not us, then who have to keep it up? For example, in Argentina, I had an invitation to perform with a chamber orchestra and offered my program entirely from Ukrainian works.
What Ukrainian composers are in your repertoire?
This is not the first time we have cooperated with Zoltan Almashi. During the quarantine, he wrote a piece “Graceful Mirage” for me. It seems to me that this work is very successful, it feels like we all wanted to communicate, to continue making music. Thanks to him, I remembered what it’s like to be with an audience. And in the fall I was invited to give a streamed concert (produced by Broadway World and Las Vegas Philharmonic), where I curated a program for solo violin, and talked about the works from the stage. Skoryk’s “Étude” was also there. Also, it is usually many other Ukrainian composers: Eugen Stankovych, Mykola Lysenko, Viktor Kosenko, Bohdana Frolyak.
During last year’s lockdown in Lviv, Marta Kuziy and I studied and performed works by Stanislav Lyudkevych and Serhiy Bortkevych (in several online performances). Ukrainian music is always drawn to the core of my attention.
And does she have a serious chance of being popular?
I hope so because it’s not just my concerts that help. There are conductors, performers, to whom I suggest and remind, — “Remember, I’ve told you about the symphonies of Sylvestrov?”. I bring new works from Ukraine to the USA.
It was also important for me to meet Marko Stech, and to conceive what a great job he does, even though he is a historian, a writer, not a musician. People in the diaspora often do the job people here in Ukraine have to do. Two years ago, thanks to a meeting with him, I went to the Kyiv archives to find the notes of the not famed composer Pavel Senytsia and at my own expense organized a concert of his quartets in California with my colleagues.
From your words, I point out that there is no discomfort in the perception of modern music. Where does it come from?
I also ask myself this question, and I think it’s partly because of the local atmosphere. I am in an environment where new music is created every day. You asked what opportunities there are on a freelance basis — they are so many of them: ensembles, orchestras, solo performance, depending on what a person wants most. The attitude to new music is just very normal: composers write, work and meet performers. And the fact that musicians are constantly working with new music is a necessary factor of life.
And I do not only stand aside from modern music, but I love it. After graduation, I was in an ensemble that had a similar composition to “Pierrot lunaire” by Schoenberg. We had a specialization to work with new authors and recorded several albums. Turning to different works over time taught me to choose exactly what can really be “ignited” and passed on to the listener.
So many times I have been convinced that if the interpreter himself is sure of what he is doing, then the listener should not be trained enough to understand what the artist wants to convey.
Performers of our generation are responsible for explanations, encouragement, interest in music — if we do not do this, there will be no availability in the future.
Since your concerts include different countries in Europe and America, you have the opportunity to compare. What is the difference between musical mentalities?
I am very happy to be in such a geographical location — between continents. It is easy to get to South America and come to Europe regularly. My European side will definitely always be the main one because when I don’t come here for a long time, I miss it terribly.
But I discovered Latin American countries and fell in love with their culture. It is very important for me to work in programs with underprivileged children (they originate from the Venezuelan El Sistema). There are really very few traditions of classical education in this region. In Ukraine, for example, the school system has been developed for years, and there it is completely new, and although sometimes the state helps, most of the knowledge is acquired through the efforts of musicians who come. During the quarantine, I created virtual masterclasses for these children and young people.
In the United States, the situation is really difficult, because the state, in principle, has never been involved in cultural development enough. The allocated funds are given by the private sector. And the generation that is just starting to play music — how should act the young musicians who dream of being professional? When here, they see that everything is falling apart before our eyes. We were all shocked, and the musicians undoubtedly suffered the most.
Regarding the difference between cultures. If the rehearsal in America starts at 3 pm, then all the musicians are ready no later than 15 minutes before the start, waiting for the conductor. There was a revelation when in Argentina I saw that it is already 5-10 minutes of rehearsal time, and the members of the orchestra just enter the hall. What’s going on? The conductor explained to me that, it turns out, often people come right at 3 pm.
Your performance activity is especially wide. Do you have an agent? What are the American features of management?
As in Europe, the practice of agencies is widespread. What happened during the Covid? It all fell apart and continues to decline. But I think musicians should value their own management skills and develop them. During the quarantine, I took a “Be Your Own Manager” course from my colleague, Bernhard Kerres (he was the CEO of the Vienna Philharmonic), and met other colleagues, with nine of whom we created our own virtual nexTus Festival (April-May), which had attracted the attention of the most prominent media in Europe and America. We presented 35 artists from around the world and created a unique format of events without any help from management. By the way, my exclusive virtual concert for this festival included the premiere of Zoltan Almashi’s work in my video vision of this work, and the works of two contemporary American authors — John Corigliano and Julia Adolphe.
The truth of life is that agencies are interested in people who have their own network, the ability to bring contacts and concepts and requirements of the music business. Today, we can’t just be musicians, we need to know what’s in the concert industry. Both art and the artist’s existence are not the same as before. To some extent, it is similar, because even today, artists have patrons who promote their activities. But Beethoven himself was a good promoter. Those great figures either knew it intuitively or pursued their careers professionally.
In fact, it all comes down to communication with our listeners. Yes, it takes time, but we must remember our work in unity with reality. What’s the point, if society is separated from what we do? Performers of our generation are responsible for explanations, encouragement, interest in music — if we do not do this, there will be no availability in the future. The age-old question, “how to attract new generations to classical music even more?” is popular.
It is a mistake to assume that without a manager, the path is closed to the performer. On the contrary, outside we have the era of entrepreneurs, startups, innovations: they should be used for the positive.
What are the guidelines for young musicians who are just embarking on the path of performance?
What helped me the most was not to isolate myself from new opportunities and knowledge. We can’t just talk about theory, we need to know how it fits into the context of life: philosophy, painting, literature — development should be sought in different directions, and the more we can connect them with music, the better the result. From here you will develop your own style.
The best piece of advice Barbara Hanigan once gave me was, “If you really look for, you will find”. The fact that she was so sincerely ready to help, prompted me to pass even more knowledge to those whom I meet. You need to develop in the direction you can fit yourself the most and form your personality. And this is possible only through continuous work.
You need to look for people — not necessarily those who are nearby, but even while reading a book, to enter into a dialogue with outstanding people. Keep your spirit up and your performance part as well. Once I learned to improvise, which was new to me and gave me special freedom on stage. And this is one of the best life lessons I’ve learned myself. A performer does not have to become a jazz musician, but it is important to understand how jazz works; it is worth playing not only classical music or not only from a classical point of view.
These postulates are strongly reflected in your phrase, “An artist is a hybrid of a tough animal and a sensitive soul”. It was said earlier in the context of competitions, but it looks like a generalization of your worldview.
It is important to have both components, and my motto is to recognize and nurture this sensitivity. Since school years, we often talk about the need to cultivate physical abilities. In order to play any concert, the performer must become an athlete: strengthened with both head and muscles, performing from beginning to end. But at the same time, it is desirable not to lose the opportunity to pass the world through yourself. Tough animal and sensitive soul. The two opposites and the fact that we have to live with them is a daily job.
I perceived it after a long time. Frankly, every day we all go through hard times, thinking about the right path, about what has been done and what to do next. It’s part of our being, and knowing that makes me feel more comfortable as an artist.