Vincent Kozlovsky: “Festival of new music for listeners is like the Vatican for a believer”

Фото: Сергій Горобець

This year, the famous Polish conductor Vincent Kozlovsky became a guest conductor of two large contemporary music festivals — the Polish “Warsaw Autumn” and the Ukrainian “Contrasts”. The opening of the first one successfully took place on September 17, but soon the music community will be able to hear the conductor at Ukrainian concerts on October 7 and 10.

A year ago, we had a talk, and you called the closing concert of “Contrasts” the best in your life. It was really a wonderful concert. What has changed since then?

This is a provocative question… I try to live and work in the way that every concert must take place at the best level. Every time I give 150% of what is possible, I want to make the best of my life, the life of the performer and the listener. Maybe it’s trivial, but my responsibility is to treat every next work as the best in the world and my favourite. However, it is impossible to say which concert was the “best”, because we are talking about art — to “measure” the images of Van Gogh or Modigliani as in sports competitions is ridiculous. Bela Bartok once said that “competitions are for horses”. I believe that each of us can afford a deep perception of art and an intelligent discussion about it.

“When I take a new work into my own hands, I become a traveller to an unknown country, exploring its flora, fauna…”

You perform different styles of music. Do you single out modern music for yourself?

Contemporary music is a mission, and the destiny of a modern artist is to bear it. So that it moves this sphere, it is relevant and high-quality, so that it is not a margin, but a familiar part. I have been studying it since childhood, the first grade of music school, and I still try to get to know new things, but not only the newest. Also, for example, Lutoslawski. I feel I have something to add to it.

What are your principles for selecting works in the repertoire?

I approach such cases with great respect every time. I try not to approach any piece with an attitude of no personal interest, I should always “want” to do the piece I perform, regardless of its style and background. Nowadays, there are many performances, conductors, performers on all kinds of instruments, but it often makes a lot of noise and little sense. I turn to new works and strive to explore them, to become informed about the style, its technical features.

Knowledge makes it possible to penetrate into the composer’s skin, to relate the work with oneself, and to interpret them. Later this knowledge is translated into purely musical qualities. Then the interpretation becomes not only professional but also personal.

Also, the artist needs to feel like a fish in water in the chosen style. Then he gives his share of interpretation for turning into a meaningful and deep performance. It was so with the project a year ago, “Metamorphoses”, also I had this way in the last season, among others, with Haydn.

The language of new music is cosmopolitan. It’s always an adventure. When I take a new work into my own hands, I become a traveller to an unknown country, exploring its flora, fauna… Or this country may be familiar to me, but in other contexts: other temperatures, mountains, plains or trees. Acquaintance with a new composition is like getting to know another person.

Photo by Grzesiek Mart

Do you believe that a composer’s work comes to life with performance, or is it born in the author’s environment and then “comes on stage”?

This is an old academic discussion. In fact, a modern work depends more on the conceptual sphere, the subtleties of writing, because the amount of information in the works is much greater. The sound result must be pre-planned. This is what the composer does. Our performing skill is to understand his intention in order to make the work sound the way the composer wanted.

Music is an ephemeral art. The work begins and must end. It exists for as long as it sounds and only in that time we can perceive it. It’s important to hear music live because it’s the essence of art. Music gives us the best and strongest opportunity to experience life here and now.

What is one of the most important things in the very opening of a new work? What is the contribution of the conductor and orchestra members?

This is partnership work. The conductor must know how to put together new work, see the necessary meanings in it. There are many bright effects in new music. The composition is not known, and the conductor as the “director of the new staging” helps the musicians to understand the complex and achieve its full representation. Orchestra members’ task is to sharpen their sound skills, but also, after the conductor’s explanation, musicians have to intellectually work with the composition. The conductor can prompt, create optimal conditions, but he does not play the instruments and for that, the musicians should be praised more than the conductor.

Are contemporary music festivals the driving force of art? What is their role?

The so-called festival music has existed for a long time. Jerzy Waldorff once said that a piece is often played only at a festival, and then it ceases to function in musical life, and other works, “festival standards” are performed again and again everywhere (for example, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony can be played several times during one weekend in one city). The reason for that situation is very complex. Listeners expect specific programs.

A festival of new music is like the Vatican for a believer, but still also is a good sightseeing place for non-believing tourists. A “normal” music lover, a listener of classical music will come to broaden his horizons. The circle of listeners includes composers, performers, musicologists too. It’s also easy to meet a famous painter at a modern music concert. The promotion can bring new listeners.

Photo by Serhiy Horobets

Isn’t it a problem that frequently only musicians are listening to the musicians on the stage?

Not only. For musicians and artists, this new music may be difficult, but they come and have to learn about contemporary reality. Everyone needs education, recognition of new things and trends. Being a participant/creator of modern culture is worth that. For example, a famous musician who doesn’t play a lot of modern music will come to such a concert, and then maybe he will take it into the standard philharmonic program. It’s not that simple that “musicians listen to musicians”. There has never been much of a request for elitism.

The role of festivals is significant because it is a compendium, an area with special opportunities. Because where else can an avant-garde composer present himself, if not at a contemporary music festival? It would also be very difficult for him to produce his own concert. At the festival, he will be able to present his creativity. And festivals like “Contrasts” or “Warsaw Autumn” have their own brand and history. It is a source of musical culture.

On September 17, you conducted during the Inauguration concert of the Warsaw Autumn Festival. And soon you will conduct a programme at the Closing of Contrasts. What do these festivals have in common? 

There are many such things. These are both very famous regular festivals that have been held for many years. Due to them, significant changes are taking place in their countries. “Contrasts” for Ukraine and beyond are very important. “Warsaw Autumn” — people from all over Poland and not only Poland come to listen to concerts.

Every year the festivals choose a relevant main theme. This time “Warsaw Autumn” had “immersion”, “Contrasts” — “past-moderne / post-moderne”. Themes influence the programming of concerts. Both festivals try to get the main idea through each event and explore it. The festivals talk about important topics, organize meetings with composers. The music itself without explanation — if the program has the right structure — can show expand on the most notable ideas.

The third thing is the world and national premieres. That means that the festival lives and provides funds for new compositions. Unfortunately, private investors in our countries do not support new music, which is a sign of their ignorance. The patronage of the private sector and non-governmental organizations is crucial — investors must understand that by supporting the newest modern projects they are also showing their brand in the light of pure innovation, unusual solutions and sublime aesthetics. The promotion of these events will benefit all those who are engaged.

It is also important that festivals take place on an international platform. Performers, composers and listeners come from abroad, which obviously helps everybody getting to know the foreign cultures. And to see our approach to our culture’s value.

I am a follower of Lutoslawski’s “school”. He said that composition is the “science of eliminations”.


Tell more about the concerts you participate in during “Contrasts” this year (October 7 and 10).

“Melancholic cantata in honour of Lviv’s Mozart”: the program on October 7 is a real postmodern. As the composer, Bohdan Sehin said, “I could not write a cantata in the XXI century”. This is a game. It is impossible to call new work a cantata seriously when we know that it was a baroque music form with other functions. He made a certain musical compilation, Ostap Slyvynsky created his own text, and used notes from the diaries of Franz Xaver Mozart. The function of the “Melancholic Cantata” is to get to know the works and destiny of Mozart through music. I am very impressed by Bohdan’s style because he has the gift to use exactly what is needed. This probably sounds weird. But I am a follower of Lutoslawski’s “school”. He said that composition is the “science of eliminations”, cutting off everything unnecessary. Bohdan is a real master in it.

It is interesting that the Closing of the Festival will feature the work of the Winner of the First Ukrainian Composer Competition named after Myroslav Skoryk. You are also a composer and a member of the jury. How was the Competition? What is the Program of Closing?

The idea is to perform the music of the jury members during the Festival. This is a very interesting and responsible feature because listeners and participants will hear these works too.

There are great composers. Jerzy Kornowicz is the art director of Warsaw Autumn, a very famous author. He created an orchestral version of Witold Lutoslawski’s “Subito”, so you will be able to see how the composer perceives the music of another composer.

Also Olexander Shchetynsky — in 1995 he won the second prize of the Lutoslawski Competition with the Flute Concerto, the premiere of which will now take place in Ukraine. Shchetynsky is an extremely powerful author, I think, he’s your star composer. He’s not only a Ukrainian top but also a European.

The concert will feature two soloists: Ukrainian flutist Roman Ievsky and Polish violinist Anna Kornowicz. French composer Pierre Wissmer’s “Divertimento” will be played. This piece will cause such freshness, as the breath of fresh air after the new music. You know how it is at the new music festivals — each composition is very serious, innovative and makes you focus on it.

My “Fanfare”, written on the 25th anniversary of the Festival, will also be played (commentary here — D. S.).

Regarding the work of the Winner. The Competition was held correctly, without any corruption or personal ambitions. Thanks to the organizing committee, we voted secretly.

Photo by Serhiy Horobets

And how do you see the composer’s situation in general?

Voting has already taken place. Let me just say that the five compositions have got the highest marks, and they’ve contained very interesting ideas. 36 works is a great deal and definitely proves a lot. But it is necessary for composers in Ukraine to try and reach, not only trusting their teachers. Teachers are right but in their art, not yours.

I am very glad that that score won. He is a mature composer who skillfully operates an orchestra. I would very much like Ukrainians to know that in fact a special story is being created before our eyes. I reckon that in 20 years people will talk about this composer as they do about Skoryk or Stankovych. It’s no accident.

So we are waiting for “Contrasts” and the announcement of the winner’s name.

I would also like to say that there will be a “Night of Contrasts” including an interesting performance near the Mozart Monument on October 9. This is a symbolic and controversial sculpture in Lviv. I would like it to become a traditional meeting place for the artistic environment. There will also be very attractive projects with Swiss and Czech compositions, completely unknown to Ukraine and the world, chamber concerts. I recommend going through the festival program — everyone will find something worthy and will be positively surprised.

I have a “romance” with “Contrasts” for the third year, and maybe it’s even something more. This is always a great emotional point of my season. I’ve made friends with participants, organizers, performers and the public. What we create and experience on stage, the listener feels. This is one of the most wonderful things about the Festival: the musicians are passionate about the music. This International Contemporary Music Festival is the largest in Ukraine, it’s the most important event. I`m proud to be involved in it.


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