A Conversation with Oksana Lyniv, the Ukrainian Conductor Forging a Glittering International Career

Oksana Lyniv. Photo credit: www.Opera4u.com

[Editor’s Note: Oksana Lyniv is considered one of the world’s great female conductors. She frequently conducts at opera houses, symphony orchestras, and music festivals—including the Bavarian State Opera and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu—throughout Europe. She was recently named director of the Graz Opera in Austria, being the first woman to hold that position. In honor of that appointment, and so that our readers may learn more about her, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter is running an interview that first appeared on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots radio several weeks before she conducted a concert in Kyiv that was part of a series of events sponsored by the UJE to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar.]


Oksana Lyniv is a rising star on the classical music scene.

She is a Ukrainian conductor who has been working at the Bavarian State Opera as assistant to the General Music Director Kirill Petrenko. On 29 September 2016 she will make her debut in Ukraine, conducting a classical concert that will be held at the Kyiv Opera House under the directorship of British opera star Pavlo Hunka.

The concert is part of the 75th Anniversary commemoration of Babyn Yar, sponsored by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter of Toronto. The Nazis murdered some 150,000 people at this ravine including 34,000 Jews over a two-day period, on September 28-29, 1941. This massacre at Babyn Yar is considered one of the most heinous atrocities of the Holocaust. The concert will feature classical musicians from Ukraine, Israel, Canada, and Great Britain, as well as the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra from Germany.

Ms. Lyniv took time from her hectic schedule of rehearsals for an interview on Nash Holos to tell us about herself, her career, and the upcoming concert.

Paulette (Pawlina) MacQuarrie: I am Pawlina, the host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots radio. This fall the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy will be commemorated in Kyiv on the initiative of the Ukrainian Jewish encounter.

One of the events will be a classical music concert, organized and directed by the opera star Pavlo Hunka of London, England. And Oksana Lyniv will be playing a leading role as well, as conductor of the orchestra. Oksana is something of a sensation herself, and she joins us now by Skype, to tell us a bit about herself and maybe give us a sneak preview of the concert she shall be conducting.

So Oksana welcome, вітаю!

Oksana: Hello!

Pawlina: Now, you were born yourself to musical parents, so a musical career for you is no great surprise. You play several instruments yourself, right? Piano, flute…

Oksana: Piano, flute, violin a little bit. I like to sing also, yes. I was also surprised that in the end I changed my profession to conducting.

Pawlina: I was going to ask you that. What made you decide to change?

Oksana: This was the question at my special musical college in Lviv, where I studied from age fourteen to eighteen. We had a concert at the end where I had to conduct the student orchestra. After this concert, I got this idea from different people to start my professional career by only conducting. At first I was very surprised, but afterwards I thought, yes, maybe this is really where I can put together all of my musical talents, and all the things that I would like to do together. As a conductor you need to have a special touch with everything…instruments, soloists, choirs, with all things.

Pawlina: So you really, obviously, love music and you just wanted to be in charge?

Oksana: Yes, and you have to organize, to manage all the elements together. And this is very interesting, because when you are conducting an opera you have to become the steering wheel also for the staging…for the visuals, you know? And it is very interesting to create this dramatic line, to play this big performance. I saw that this was really something for me.

Pawlina: As a female conductor you are something of a novelty in a male dominated field. Do you encounter any difficulties or special challenges because of your gender?

Oksana: Yes. In the beginning you always have more difficulties because you have to push through in your career, not only as a young conductor but also as a female conductor, and this is unconventional in the 21st century. But when you can develop more, and when you achieve more success, it becomes easier.

Pawlina: You were born in Brody, which before the Holocaust was a major hub of Jewish life for centuries. Growing up there, were you aware at all of Brody’s Jewish past?

Oksana: No, my family is not from Brody directly. My mother’s family moved from eastern Poland to Brody after the Second World War. My father’s family came from the Carpathian Mountains. But in Brody there was a very large Jewish population, more than eighty percent...and also a wonderful, very big synagogue. But it’s a pity because now it’s in ruins. But when you see it you can feel that this was a very important Jewish center…because the next kilometre over from Brody was Russia already. [Brody was on the former frontier between the Habsburg and Russian Empires until 1914—Ed.] This was a very important town for economic and historical reasons.

Pawlina: You started out working in Ukraine at the Lviv National Academy Opera and Ballet. And, you were also at the Odessa National Opera and Ballet Theatre?

Oksana: Yes.

Pawlina: And then you went to Germany. That was a new challenge and opportunity. How is it that you managed to end up in Germany?

Oksana: I can say only this, and perhaps this sounds strange, but I had already conducted in Japan, Paris, and now in Stockholm, and I am conducting in Barcelona, but this will be my Kyiv debut.

Pawlina: Really?

Oksana: Yes, I know it’s funny, but I already conducted in Kyiv in May. I conducted a very small concert with a very small chamber orchestra, but never some really serious concert with major symphonic or opera material. And this will also be my very important national debut.

Pawlina: Oh, that’s funny. They say that prophets are never recognized at home, right?

Oksana: I am very proud to conduct such an important concert, with such a wonderful and very, very difficult program. And really on an international level. I’m preparing very, very hard for this, because I think this has to be really very deep and interesting and very touching for all the people who can hear this.

Pawlina: What’s the largest orchestra you have conducted?

Oksana: Perhaps the biggest orchestra I have conducted was in June at the Bartok festival in Hungry. There were maybe around 115 people in the orchestra…for Bartok pieces.

Pawlina: Wow. What was your first job? When did you first take the baton and conduct your first orchestra? Tell us about that.

Oksana: This is difficult to say, because my first job was as a teacher in a school, in a special choir in a music school in Lviv and I was sixteen years old.

Pawlina: Oh my…sixteen!

Oksana: I conducted a choir, but not an orchestra. It was very difficult to conduct an orchestra and to make a living because those were very challenging times in Ukraine. Sometimes I conducted, but without an honorarium…without payment. Or maybe I paid [for concerts] with the musicians…because we were together with other student composers and we wanted to organize some very interesting concerts with modern music. Those pieces were just recently composed and we put our money together to organize this concert, to pay to rent some hall, and to organize musicians and scores and all these things. I really very, very much appreciated the opportunity to conduct. This was not a issue for me…money or not. And I think the first opportunity to conduct for a small honorarium was already in Germany after the competition where I received the third prize for the Gustav Mahler international conductor competition. After this competition I received international invitations for different concerts and festivals.

Pawlina: Well, congratulations on that award, and I would say that spring-boarded your career then?

Oksana: Yes…it was a very exciting moment for me. It was after I finished the Lviv Music Academy. For one year I had a job. And for one year I had not conducted any orchestra. I didn’t have the opportunity to make music. Afterwards, there was this invitation to the international conductor competition in Germany. And to start with a German orchestra, one of the best German orchestras…and this program. You know, Mahler’s symphony of all things. It was a major symphony, it was really exciting, and a really crazy moment in my life because I thought this is the opportunity. And this a chance I can get only once in my life.

Pawlina: Yes, for sure. So how did you feel then about this invitation to conduct at the Babyn Yar commemoration? I mean you said this is going to be your Kyiv debut, so I imagine you are pretty thrilled?

Oksana: Not [just] in Kyiv, this is my Ukraine debut! In the last two years I think there have been a lot of publications in the press in Ukraine and the international media. And I think it is interesting for people to see my work. It’s also for me a very big honor to be invited to conduct this. Because I understand and I feel very deeply the meaning of this historical drama…about what happened. And you know we now also have a war in Ukraine. I am always thinking about this. And you know it is such a short moment from peace to war. No one was waiting for all these things that are happening now in Ukraine. And this is really terrible, all this terrible news that we have had for the last three years. And I think that everyone has to feel a major responsibility to keep the peace.

Pawlina: How were you approached and invited to be the conductor of this orchestra?

Oksana: Do you know Pavlo Hunka? He is an internationally famous singer. And we met for the first time at the Berlin State Opera for the Lulu production. He sang in Munich, and I was conducting the rehearsals. And he said that for the first time in my life [he] was conducted not only by a Ukrainian conductor, but also by a Ukrainian female conductor. This was a much bigger surprise! He spoke also about all that had happened and what we can do for Ukraine and Ukrainian culture. And he also heard my interviews (there are a lot on the internet) and he said it was incredible that we had the same ideas about what we can do to present Ukrainian music to the entire world. He also told me about this concert and about this idea. And he said we have no conductor now and perhaps you can conduct this so that I can introduce my country on an international professional musical level?  Also, I work with Kiril Petrenko and he is the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra…a very famous, incredible conductor and I am like his right hand now in one of the most important opera houses in the world. My career had by now developed to a very good level. And I think it was Pavlo Hunka’s wonderful idea to put together for this performance musicians from different countries. He said it could be wonderful that you as conductor would be from Ukraine. And yes…Kiril Petrenko also said that I could conduct this wonderful program. And it was decided.

Pawlina: Excellent. Tell us about the orchestra. What is the orchestra that you will be conducting?

Oksana: The orchestra will come from Germany. It is the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra. I think it is a wonderful idea to put three main nationalities together in this concert…a German orchestra, soloists from Canada and Israel, and me, a Ukrainian conductor.

Pawlina: Right, and Pavlo of course the director….

Oksana: Yes, England, Ukraine, yes.

Pawlina: So, you have lived for three years now in Germany…

Oksana: Yes.

Pawlina: And you were quoted somewhere as saying that you don’t consider yourself an immigrant, because you often return home to Ukraine for inspiration. So, what is it that draws you back and where is your home first of all?

Oksana: For me, my home is here in Ukraine in Lviv where I also have my apartment and I can stay here for very long periods. It is very important for me to have this feeling that this is my home. And I can come back and here is my library, and here is my piano that I played when I was a child. You understand? And all of my favorite pictures…and my friends. I can meet my friends. All those things that you have when you go home, you know? That you can have this feeling again, to take that energy again, because I always miss…I miss my language, I miss my culture. I also miss the people that I often cannot invite to my concerts or performances…my family or my friends. I tried. My mother was in Munich already, as well as my father, my brother, and also my friends. But, there are only one or two people you can invite. And I can’t help having this feeling how here [in Lviv] I can invite a lot of really different people who are important to me and for my life. And it is very important for me to maintain this contact. To keep this link, to also be within the challenges and all the different things that have happened in my country. You understand? Every year there are happy times but it’s important also to listen to people and their opinions. I also have to be inside here. I cannot be completely abroad and only read something in the news, from the internet, or from the newspaper. This is not enough for me. I have to return again and again. For me and my career. It’s also very, very important for me and my career to have contact, for example, with composers now living in Ukraine, because I would like to be always informed about what has happened, about which new pieces they are creating. And when there is something very interesting I also always introduce and present this in Germany. And I am very happy when these ideas can work. For example, now in the Met I will have some concerts with a German orchestra and I can play pieces by the Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk. One year earlier I recorded for the Bavarian State Radio Company my favorite Ukrainian symphonies by the composer Boris Lyatoshinsky. And I am very happy because this may not be a lot but it is very important that somebody presents this culture to the world. You understand? For example, you have [Valery] Gergiev who is always trying to perform some Russian composer and to bring some Russian soloists [to the stage]…And so I think this is very, very important for Ukraine.

Pawlina: You have a very strong sense of your own roots.

Oksana: Yes.

Pawlina: So your home in Lviv is your home base. That is your entire identity, and you go out into the world and share, not just yourself, but your roots and your entire national identity. That is admirable.

Oksana: Yes. I try.

Pawlina: Yes it is…yes, wonderful. Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. And hopefully perhaps you will be conducting here on the North American continent?

Oksana: Oh I also hope so.

Pawlina: Thank you so much Oksana…щиро дякую…and all the best.

Oksana: Thank you very much.

Pawlina: I was speaking with Oksana Lyniv, who will be conducting the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra in a classical music concert at the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Babyn Yar massacre during World War Two in Kyiv. The commemorations, of which the concert is just one event, are being organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and will take place in late September in Kyiv. The concert where Oksana Lyniv will be conducting will take place at the Kyiv Opera House on September 29th. Home for Oksana Lyniv is Lviv, Ukraine. She works in Munich, Germany where she is Conductor and Musical Assistant to the General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera House.

Listen to the program here.

Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more about their work, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Transcripts and audio files of this and earlier broadcasts of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage are available on their website as well as on the Nash Holos website.

Post script: A video of the concert Ms. Lyniv conducted can be seen here.