When the Welcome to Ukraine magazine learnt that a Ukrainian conductor, Herman Makarenko, had been named a laureate of the 21st International Conductors’ Competition held in Switzerland in September, 1998, the most prestigious competition of its kind in the world, it was decided it was worth seeking the conductor out and interviewing him. But it turned out that soon after his return from Switzerland, he left for Canada to take part in another competition, and from there he proceeded to Texas, USA, to participate in still another conductorsshort of a ’ competition, becoming a laureate of both. It was nothing triumph and Welcome to Ukraine waited patiently but eagerly for his arrival in Kyiv. It was only late in December that a chance presented itself to talk to Mr Makarenko who is very busy between conducting the Opera House orchestra and teaching students at Kyiv Conservatory of Music (now officially called National Music Academy of Ukraine). Welcome to Ukraine sent a free lance journalist Olexander Panasyev to talk to Mr Makarenko.

When I arrived at the Conservatory at the appointed time I knew very little about Mr Makarenko except a handful of facts: a brilliant conductor of the Opera House orchestra and a laureate of several prestigious international competitions. I expected to see a man of at least fifty, grey-haired, aloof. I saw a man who looked definitely younger than his thirty-seven years, affable, approachable, agile, medium-height, almost skinny, with a friendliest of smiles. He took me through a maze of corridors of the huge building of the Conservatory, looking for a classroom where we could talk without being bothered. Though the time was late afternoon, the place seemed to be at the height of musical activity. Students walked up and down the stairs and long corridors, individually and in groups, gesticulating and talking animatedly, sat here and there on stools and chairs near the doors, playing all kinds of musical instruments, evidently having failed to find an empty room for their practising; from behind many doors singing could be heard. Cacophonous pandemonium seemed to rein supreme. After a prolonged search, we did manage to find a room with a lonely accordion player in it who sulkily agreed to vacate it “for some time” to let us talk. While the student was collecting his things, he grumbled under his breath something about having “to prepare for an exam.” Mr Makarenko was all politeness, expressed his apologies. The room had several chairs, two battered upright pianos. When we settled down, my first question was:

WU: The Conservatory is surely full of life, so many nice young people eager to master the art of music. What about attendance of the Opera House? Do people come to see operas and ballets these days?
Makarenko
: They sure do, probably even more than ever before. And the low price for the tickets is only of a secondary consideration here. You see, there’s so much of ugliness of every kind around, so many troubles affecting people’s life that no wonder they seek harmony, beauty, spirituality. And all of these things are concentrated in the magnificent creation of human spirit — the opera. We have full houses regularly. I do believe that opera is the loftiest and greatest achievements of human spirit. Opera is a combination of music, acting, singing, choreography, scenery that in its turn blends the arts of painting and architecture, all of it highly harmonious, highly perfected. No other art produces so much artistic effect in such a concentrated form and so simultaneously.

WU: How does one become a conductor in the first place?
Makarenko
: I was born into, as it were, a musical family. My father is an opera singer, a tenor, now retired. He used to be a soloist of the Opera House in Tbilisi, Georgia, than in Minsk. My mother used to be a ballet dancer, in Lviv. Even my name has musical associations.

WU: Herman?
Makarenko
: No, I don’t mean it sounds particularly musical. I’ll explain. My father’s favourite opera was Chaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, and as you remember, the principal character of this opera, based on Pushkin’s long poem of the same name, is called “Herman.” So I was christened Herman. As long as I remember myself, I have always lived with music, in music. In my childhood I was often present at performances of operas and ballets, I grew up, as it were, standing in the wings of the stage, in the glow of the footlights. Music has become an integral part of my being, music and I are inseparable.Believe it or not, but I dreamt of becoming a conductor already at the age of three or four.

WU: Did you study music in Lviv?
Makarenko
: No, I was taken to Kyiv where I was admitted to a music school. It was a boarding school. It felt lonely without parents by my side, but I gave myself totally to studying music. They don’t teach conducting at a secondary music school, but conducting was always paramount on my mind. In 1980, upon graduation on top of my class, I was enrolled at Kyiv Music Conservatory and it took me ten years to graduate. It took so long not because I was such a bad student, but because I studied at two departments. First, it was the Piano Department, and then the Conductors’ Department. You see, you cannot go to study conducting unless you’ve mastered a musical instrument. In my case, it was the piano. I graduated from both departments summa cum laude. The culminating point of the graduation is what is called a “state exam’’ the final and most important exam that shows how qualified you are in your subject. In 1990 I was immensely privileged to be given a chance to conduct the Opera House orchestra as my final graduation exam. Seems I did well then, since I was invited to come to work at the Opera House as a conductor. In fact, I had had a chance of conducting the Opera House orchestra on several occasions beginning from 1987.

WU: It’s utterly beyond my comprehension how a conductor can control an orchestra of several dozens of musicians…
Makarenko
: Add to it the action and singing going on the stage. Imagine, you are responsible for synchronic music action of two or three hundred men and women! The supreme moment comes when you know you can inspire them, breathe “a divine spark” into them. It’s immensely gratifying to know that you can do it, and do it well.

WU: One must experience a tremendous tension, conducting a big orchestra and minding at the same time what’s going on the stage. What’s the best relaxation for you?
Makarenko
: I don’t drink, if I’ve understood your hint right. There are two things that provide me with the greatest relaxation: philosophy and walks through the countryside and parks. Unfortunately, there’s very little time now for leisure strolls.

WU: I don’t quite understand your remark about philosophy. Do you mean to say you do some philosophizing or reading philosophy in your spare time? And it relaxes you?
Makarenko
: Both, philosophizing, as you put it, and reading philosophical works. At one point in my career, I realized that philosophy is something I can’t live without, the way I can’t live without music. So, in 1995, I enrolled in post-graduate studies and now I am writing a doctoral dissertation: Philosophy of Music in the Philosophical Systems of Irrationalism of the 18th-19th centuries. A particular attention has been paid to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. For me music and philosophy have become inseparable. Music is a philosophy of emotions. Philosophy is music of thought. Both make up the phenomenon known as spirituality. Philosophy and music seem, at the first glance, to be polar manifestations of the human spirit, but they are a unity, in the same sense that day and night are a unity, good and evil. Without one, there’s no room for the other.

WU: So, apparently your doctorate has not interfered with your career of a conductor.
Makarenko
: In no way. In September, as you know, I took part in the International Conductors’ Competition in Switzerland. I was the only conductor representing Ukraine. It’s a very tough competition, with points being given to you not only by the jury but also by all the musicians of the orchestra you conduct. If politically or economically Ukraine is known but little in the world, culturally Ukraine is getting to be known better. I’m very proud of the fact that my modest success at international competitions contributes to familiarizing the world with Ukrainian cultural achievements. Then, there was Canada, the International Festival of Arts in Montreal. We performed La Voix Humaine by the French composer Francis Poulenc. It’s an extremely difficult mono-opera, that is an opera with only one singer. Tetyana Pyminova was the singer, Oksana Yaremchuk, an undergraduate of our Conservatory, was the accompanist. From Canada, I went to the USA, to Texas Tech University which has an excellent music school. There I conducted Madame Butterfly, Il Tabarro by Puccini, Carmen by Bizet, Il Nozze di Figaro by Mozart, Die Fledermaus (the Bat) by Iohann Strauss the Younger. I enjoyed conducting there and it seems to me a good rapport was established between me and the orchestras I conducted. It’s tremendously important to make a good impression upon the orchestra, and in most cases, it’s “an impression at first sight.” If you are accepted by the orchestra than you’ll be able to bring across your ideas to the musicians, your interpretation of this or that musical piece, if not – well, then you’re likely to fail.

WU: I’m sorry for going from the lofty spiritual subjects down to earth. All these trips of yours must be pretty costly. Who pays all the expenses, you yourself?
Makarenko
: Of course not! Without sponsors, I would have never been able to do it! The Inter-Policy Insurance Company (President Yevhen Utkin, Executive Director Volodymyr Pestenkov) and Kvazar-Micro Company (President Valentyn Honcharenko), both of them in Kyiv, have been kind enough to make all my recent trips possible.

WU: You seem to be very happy with what you’re doing. Do you consider yourself lucky to have chosen a conductor’s carer?
Makarenko
: Very much so. Yes, I’ve been lucky with the family that encouraged my musical inclinations, I’ve been lucky with the teachers and people I’ve worked with. I can’t help mentioning Roman Kofman, a professor of the Conservatory, who taught me so much. Than there was the late Oleh Ryabov, an opera conductor, who used to work at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and knew and worked with such grandees of the twentieth-century music as Rozhdestvensky, Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya. My gratitude to Oleh Ryabov is great indeed; it was he who introduced me to the awesome art of conducting an opera orchestra.

WU: May I ask you a personal question? Are you married?
Makarenko
: Yes, I am, and I have a son of four. My wife is not a musician, she’s a graduate of a foreign-languages college in Kyiv. One of my greatest regrets is a lack of time to bring up my son in the love of music, the way it happened with me and my parents. I hope he catches on.

WU: I always wondered what an attitude a person like you, a superb musician to the core, might have towards pop music?
Makarenko
: Well, it’s there, many people enjoy listening to it, so it has a full right to exist, though, frankly, I find so many pop songs extremely primitive. I can’t listen to them, I just get annoyed. But it’s all a matter of taste. You can’t force people to love opera, can you? But I do hope that more and more people will come to understand that opera is the supreme manifestation of all the arts, both performing and visual.

WU: Thank you so much for your time and for making me and hopefully many readers of WU will look at opera, music and philosophy from quite a different perspective.
Makarenko
: You’re most welcome. And thank you.

P.S. Talking to Mr Makarenko gave me a great emotional uplift, and a new hope. Regular full houses at the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Ukraine, the Conservatory of Music teeming with students eager to master music, a Ukrainian conductor named a laureate and well-received in many parts of the world — it all means that no matter what economic hardships Ukraine may be facing, culture and lofty spirituality are kept up at a high level, to a great extent thanks to people like the opera conductor Herman Makarenko.

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