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Alexander Gavrylyuk on the power of music to unite

20 September, 2023

The Ukrainian-born Australian pianist reunites with the Sydney Symphony in November to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. And as he explains, this is music that speaks to our shared humanity.

By Hugh Robertson

Alexander Gavrylyuk is living proof that music can change lives.

One of countless students going through the rigorous Soviet music education system in the 1980s and 1990s in his home city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, the young Alexander quickly discovered that he had an affinity for the piano. Then at 13, he moved to Australia, and he realised that not only could music move you emotionally, but it can take you all over the world, too.

Sitting in the sunlit front room of his Woollahra home that he shares with his wife and manager, Zoki, their two young daughters and a rather beautiful ragdoll cat, Gavrylyuk is reflecting on his career, and especially his long-running relationship with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He returns to the Orchestra in November for four performances of Tchaikovsky’s powerful, romantic Piano Concerto No.1 with Principal Guest Conductor Sir Donald Runnicles, in a concert of rich orchestral colours that also includes Debussy’s evocative Images for Orchestra and Dutilleux’s dreamlike, spellbinding Métaboles.

Nowadays Gavrylyuk is in-demand worldwide as a concert pianist. Vladimir Ashkenazy, who knows a good pianist when he hears one, called Gavrylyuk ‘an extraordinary talent,’ and he has been called ‘a pianist of tremendous expressive range matched by a technique of comprehensive brilliance,’ (The Advertiser), ‘a brilliant technician’ (Sydney Morning Herald) and ‘a unique artist, who…is simply not capable of playing anything devoid of profound musical feeling,’ (International Piano Magazine).

With a story like his, perhaps it is no surprise that Gavrylyuk believes there is a special magic to live music. Something that transcends words, that unites people no matter their lived experience. In the concert hall, everything else is stripped away, and all that is left is us, the music, and our emotions. That is what he has experienced countless times as an audience member, and that is the atmosphere he tries to create in his own performances – not just for the audience, but also for the musicians performing with him, and for himself.

Coming to a concert like this gives someone an experience of unity with other members of the audience,’ says Gavrylyuk. ‘You experience connection to your inner world, your emotional world. It might help you reflect, it might inspire new ideas.

‘When you are hearing music that is so high energy, so rich in colour, it brings similar things to you as well – and it attracts similar high energy things into your life as well. So when you expose yourself to that kind of experience, I think it really elevates you to that kind of high energy experience.’

“High energy” is the perfect way to describe Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The gigantic, swelling chords of its opening are among the most famous melodies in all of music, and it is one of the are pieces to remain popular ever since its premiere in 1875.

But Gavrylyuk is quick to point out that although work seems rich and triumphant on first listen, in fact it has tremendous emotional depth that reveals much about Tchaikovsky the man.

‘It is a very, very personal work,’ says Gavrylyuk. ‘It is a very intimate work, and one that reveals his fascination with folk culture as well – the piece has numerous themes from Ukrainian folk songs; his great-grandfather was Ukrainian, and he was often inspired by that. For me as a Ukrainian, of course that plays quite an interesting role.

Alexander Gavrylyuk
Alexander Gavrylyuk. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

‘Of course those first movements will bring feelings of joy and liberation. But there is a lot of struggle in Tchaikovsky’s music too: struggle between openness and fragility, between darkness and euphoria, and he faces sadness and tragedy with resilience and even humour.’

‘It is full of this unstoppable, blood-boiling spirit, lots of positivity and the sense of liberation after the first movement. But apart from joy and exuberance you also feel the tragedy as well.’

It is this rich emotional landscape, as well as its vast pianistic architecture, that has proved irresistible to so many of the great pianists. Vladimir Horowitz recorded it twice, Martha Argerich three times, Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter five each, and Emil Gilels recorded it more than a dozen times, both live and in the studio. It is also perhaps the only piano concerto to cause an international diplomatic incident: in 1958, American pianist Van Cliburn performed this piece at the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War – the competition organisers had to check with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev whether they could award first prize to an American!

Van Cliburn’s victory in 1958
The cover of TIME Magazine after Van Cliburn’s victory in 1958.

Gavrylyuk says that he loves to listen to recordings by the great pianists, but when it comes times for his own performance he pushes them from his mind. ‘This Tchaikovsky concerto is a masterwork, I'm sure everyone in the world knows the opening chords. But for me, the challenge is to pretend that it's an unknown work and start working on as if I'm hearing it for the first time.’

‘I can’t let myself be fooled by hundreds and hundreds of recordings and the history of it. I have to approach it from a completely new ‘ground zero’ mindset, and allow for new ideas to appear as if it was being performed for the first time, born of the spontaneity of the moment.’

‘That is easier now than it was when I was a child,’ he admits. ‘But when I was about 18 I experienced this mental shift where my focus wasn’t on myself as a performer anymore, and I started to focus more and more on becoming a medium between the music and the audience.’

‘And once I had that shift, I stopped thinking about other pianists as my competitors – because music is not a competitive activity, it's a unifying activity. Instead I started seeing them as fellow artists that are trying their best to communicate their artistic truth, and make the world a little bit better and unite us a little bit more; to break through the skin-deep differences we all have and connect us on a deeper level where we're all similar.’

Alexander Gavrylyuk
Alexander Gavrylyuk. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Gavrylyuk strives to bring this humanism, this empathy, into every concert hall he performs in. And he believes that it is what makes music so special: that we all bring our own experiences into the concert hall, and the music will affect each person differently. He knows what Tchaikovsky’s concerto means to him, but he genuinely wants to understand what it means for everyone else, too.

‘I am interested to know how this music relates to each audience member’s own life experiences,’ he says. ‘We all experience emotions one way or another, but we all have different life experiences. I think music is the is the tool that can unite people on that level.’

‘Connecting the music to your personal life and your inner journey, that is a really amazing experience. It's a bit like meditation, and I try and exercise it every time I'm in the audience. It's a very subjective thing, but that is the beautiful thing about music.’