Orest Smovzh

Violinist Orest Smovzh is at the forefront of today’s generation of exciting and multi-talented artists. Born in Ukraine, Orest is a graduate of the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore. He is currently a Starling Fellow at the USC Thornton School of Music, where he studies under the tutelage of Professor Midori Gotō.

Winner of the Tadeusz Wronski Violin Solo Competition in 2015, Orest has participated in many competitions and is an active recitalist, performing in concerts throughout Europe, America, and Asia. Orest’s diverse interests encompass a whole range of the musical spectrum: he is a

keen enthusiast of historically informed performance practice, and is a passionate advocate of contemporary music, having commissioned and premiered approximately 40 works from leading Ukrainian composers. At age 19, he initiated a chamber music festival in his hometown in Ukraine, and has since become the director and manager of several other music festivals and orchestras. Orest had his conducting debut in 2016 with pianist Antoniy Baryshevskyi and the Rivne Philharmonic Orchestra.

His upcoming solo recital, scheduled for April 7 in Malacca, Malaysia, features an unusual program atypical for most violin recitals, but is a fairly standard “Orest Smovzh program.” He will perform Bach, and three solo works that were written for him. Khai Ern Ooi chats with him, prior to this concert, about his wide-ranging activities.

When did you start playing the violin, and why the violin?


It was actually pretty late, when I was 7 and a half. My mother is a violinist, so it was a natural choice of the instrument.


Growing up, have you always wanted to become a violinist?


At the beginning, of course I did not want to. It took a year for my mother to convince me to try at least one lesson. At that age I clearly had more important things to do (in my opinion), but once I’ve tried – there was never a problem with my willingness to play violin, even though I did imagine myself as a concert pianist, or maybe a conductor.


You've lived and studied all over the world. How would you describe the differences in attitudes and perceptions that each culture has towards music and the arts?


You know, nowadays, it is so mixed and globalized, but differences can still be seen nevertheless. Ukraine – it is a huge scene for those who really love music, for enthusiasts, and altruistic artists. It is not difficult to get a venue, performers or even a whole orchestra to play for free, if you know how to make your ideas interesting. Classical music culture there is very old. It is a good thing, but at the same time, it is long overdue for an upgrade. Singapore – can’t say that I got the full idea of it yet, but it seems like listeners are open to anything there, as long as it is of good quality, or well-advertised. It is still very open and still forming. Singapore reminds me of a spaceship that moves with a crazy speed, and some of the passengers have already jumped in listening to Monteverdi Madrigals at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. But there are others who are still in kampongs (rural villages) in their souls. And that contrast is a fascinating thing about Singapore. Los Angeles – it is an enormous space full of music lovers that are able to appreciate literally any effort towards music, but it is quite about money, lack of time due to traffic and miles of highways, separating people and making it a lonely place, I would say.


Do you have a practice routine or schedule? Do you always start with scales or etudes? Which ones?


My main practice routine is to play with a bow on the strings. But yes, I do try to always start with scales, shifting exercises, etc. It is a good gymnastics for body, mind and kind of a meditation.


You will be playing some very interesting pieces that were written for you in your upcoming recital in Malacca. What are these pieces and who are these composers?


Vitaliy Vyshynsky, Oleg Bezborodko and Kong Meng Liew. First two are among the most interesting composers living in Ukraine. Kong Meng is a Singaporean that recently graduated from YST Conservatory, and has a very interesting voice, feeling of space and texture. Vitalyi’s Dances of a December Night is kind of a baroque suite, but rewritten today, with exciting energy, elegance and creativity. Kommos by Bezborodko is an ancient Greek drama genre lament that is performed after someone died, literally means “beating in chest” from a sorrow of lost. Kong Meng’s Remnants of the Spring – piece where you can hear everything about the Spring – its magic, dreaminess, elusive presence (or absence of).


You've played a lot of new music - did you ask your friends to write for you? How is it to collaborate with composers?


Working with living composers is a really exciting process. At some point, you understand that it is not any different from working on Beethoven’s or Schumann’s piece, and that composers that are considered classics were also real people, just like a friend that wrote for you. Knowing composers, you start to understand the composer’s mind better, you get into the creation of music from inside. Most of the contemporary pieces I’ve played, were written for me. I always liked to contribute to violin repertoire in this way, and always loved to combine known repertoire with new works, specially written for that particular event. It is as if the legacy of humanity is in front of you, and you’ve just dropped a little something there, and it became a bit bigger.


How do you approach a completely new piece of music?


I do not listen to any recordings of it. I don’t listen to the recordings of what I play in general. I don’t need someone else’s opinion to form my own. And then, the interesting way begins. From recognizing big then small forms, shapes and shades of emotions, with questioning everything – why, what, how.


Do you also write music?


Not really. I used to a bit, and still have many or maybe too many ideas. I hope one day I’ll put some of those on paper.


You are the director or manager of a number of festivals and orchestras in Ukraine. Could you elaborate on that? 


When I was 19, by accident I’ve started the very first chamber music festival in a village in Ukraine. This year, it will be the 7th edition of Dzenzelivka Classical Week.


What do you mean ‘by accident’?


I decided to visit my friend in the village very spontaneously. The next day after I arrived  - he showed me a half alive half dead piano in a local museum. And that very moment I decided to make a concert there next day, I didn't have my violin with me but luckily I can play piano. We did a concert with my friend who is a pianist together, playing mostly Bach. Very next day I had an idea of returning there next year with more musicians and more concerts. That's how it started and happens annually now.


Recently, I also took administrative part in Poltava Chamber Music Day last summer. And also, with a concert organization Collegium Musicum Lviv, that now is developing almost at the speed of light. We did Lviv Bach Days 2014, Collegium Fest, and Collegium Musicum Winter Festival. I am always very passionate about planning, creating programs and the artistic side of events. It’s like a little mind game, but once a sudden idea that has been boiling for long time happens in real life – that’s one of the best pleasures possible.


How do you juggle your time between being a student, participating in competitions, playing recitals, and managing these festivals?


I do wish that I am more organized about keeping up will all those things. Because everything I do is my passion, everything happens passionately spontaneous. My mind is polyphonically thinking about everything at the same time, so far it worked somehow.


You are also interested in historically informed performance practice. Do you think that learning to play on a Baroque violin is important? How about pitch and tuning?


I do. My very first attempt was in Singapore with Bach and Massaki Suzuki. And more consistently I work in that direction at Thornton School of Music, with Adam, Rotem Gilbert and Sue Feldman. It is a school-based ensemble for students.

It is undoubtedly important. But not only violin, learning the whole process is important. Learning how to play in ensemble, how to deal with the language of the time and other instruments, and what is probably the most important – playing with singers. Because Renaissance and Baroque music is so clearly connected with a word and singing – it teaches a lot about the nature of sound, articulation and ideas of music from its origins. Tuning is a tough one. Good luck and patience to everyone who is starting to deal with this.


Which composers or performers do you draw inspiration from? Are there certain composers whose music you particularly enjoy playing?


I have few names on mind. Schumann, Hindemith, Britten, Xenakis. That’s the special ones. Of course there is Bach. There is a bottomless ocean starting from Perotin, and all the way to Stratosphere of composers whose pieces are not written yet. I enjoy playing most of that specter.


Conducting: how did that start and are you also studying conducting?


It was always my intention. But it didn’t start till classes in Singapore with Chan Tze Law, later Jason Lai. In States I also had a conducting class with Michael Powers. I can’t say that I did work on conducting as much as on violin, and so far it is not a priority, but I had my debut some months ago in Ukraine and it was exciting. To be continued!

by Khai Ern Ooi