Talk to any gifted musician, and you nearly always find that early in life there was a turning point, a fateful moment when a vague enthusiasm for something suddenly became burningly focused. Kirill Karabits remembers his fateful moment well. “I was about 13, and I was listening to a conversation between my parents and lots of other family members. They were discussing many things, then the conversation turned to me – would Kirill do this or that? Would he be an engineer or a scientist or musician? And strangely at that moment I knew I had to be a musician.” Music is certainly in his blood. His mother is a musicologist, and his father, until his death in 2002, was a well-known composer in Kiev.
He entered the Conservatoire in Kiev, and was soon cajoling fellow students into playing under his baton. But he wanted to study in the West, and achieving that was a hard slog. The Curtis Institute in the US turned him down twice, and finally Karabits won a place at a conservatoire in Vienna only to find it was a total wash-out. “Just academic lessons all day, no conducting at all. But I went to many concerts, and one day I saw a sign on the notice-board: 'Assistant conductor needed for Budapest Festival Orchestra.’ ” Working with the charismatic Iván Fischer would be a golden opportunity, but Karabits was careful not to get his hopes up. To his amazement, he won. “I had three wonderful years, travelling all over the world, preparing the orchestra for concerts.”
Physical and mental toughness is essential in being a conductor, and Karabits clearly has it in spades. But alongside that is an equally vital human sensitivity. “This job cannot be done in the old way any more – you know, the big maestro who says it has to be like this and that. The conductor is simply one element in a process that involves composer, conductor, player and audience. He makes everything function, but that doesn’t make him more important. You help things to happen. If you forget that and try to impose yourself, conducting becomes a boring fake.”