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Top class musician returns happily to homeland

Conductor Alexander Khumala studied in Europe and has steadily built his career
Conductor Alexander Khumala studied in Europe and has steadily built his career. He was just a few months from claiming his Dutch passport when, in 2012, the young musician returned to Belarus, to lead Sonorus: a musical capella group. Between visiting the Culture Ministry and a rehearsal, he chats to us, telling of his career in the West and the challenge in turning down foreign prospects in favour of a return to his homeland.

It’s not difficult to move abroad but the world isn’t covered with honey: competition is tough. These days, musical contests are judged ‘out of sight’ so that judges cannot be influenced by personal relationships, voting purely on the performance. Those who have won prestigious awards thus stand on an equal footing with novice musicians.

Not long ago, a contrabassist was chosen for a European orchestra: only four musicians went through to the second round (of 20) and even those in the first round had to pass a pre-selection round (of 600 participants). It’s just like a sporting competition.

Is a sweet life guaranteed as a result?

Confidence reigns that good money can be made if you work hard; I regularly woke at 5am and was still on my phone at 1am. Last summer, I worked in the USA, where nobody is surprised by night telephone calls.
Sadly, money is essential. Musicians are addicted to their calling, and are used to rehearsing for 6-7 hours a day. It might seem easy to play a violin, in comparison to digging the soil, for example, but remember that you may need to stand for five hours, holding your instrument outstretched, with your bow in the other hand. It’s a hugely physical feat! Meanwhile, pianists may sit upright for five hours and a trumpeter must hold a heavy instrument. In working hard, we wish to earn a good income, which inspires the move abroad.

Why have you returned?

I ask myself this question every day. I studied in Holland, winning a scholarship from the royal family: my application was chosen from 100,000. I’d already worked in Poland and travelled a great deal for five years abroad. Eventually, I was invited to apply as ‘Sonorus’ musical capella group’s chief conductor. I had to decide whether to return or not as, at that time, I already had a job (though not as chief conductor).

You worked with the Netherlands’ Royal Orchestra, which is extremely prestigious.

I had less than a year left before I’d qualify for a Dutch passport but I decided that it wouldn’t be the same as truly having responsibility for something. Here, I have a team and have the chance to lead, which is very important for me. A conductor is not a musical interpreter; they lead the orchestra and its sound. Psychology and diplomacy is essential and it’s great experience. I was just 29 when I was appointed: an age at which few musicians become chief conductors.

Mentally, I’d never left Belarus; all my thoughts remained here, with my family, parents and younger brother, as well as my friends. At long last, I realised that I didn’t need to leave the country where I had grown up — where my beloved streets, roads and places were situated. Why should I part with all this, staying somewhere else?

You still have foreign projects...

Of course, I often travel abroad, working with orchestras as an invited conductor, as is normal international practice. However, I bear responsibility for the whole team here.
Who else has returned to Belarus, apart from yourself?

Among them wonderful pianist Alexander Muzykantov: our star. He studied at the prestigious London College of Music, after receiving a scholarship. Similarly, pianist Yuri Blinov has returned from America. We have a feeling of patriotism, although some might scoff at the idea of returning to a modest Belarusian salary. It’s not enough to talk only of your love for the Motherland; you should prove it in action. The return of top class musicians, wishing to contribute to our national culture, is a good example.

By Irina Ovsepyan
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