ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!
Born in Latvia, educated in Russia, after his repatriation to Israel, Mischa Maisky has been enthusiastically received in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, New York and Tokyo, along with the rest of the major music centers.
He considers himself as a citizen of the world: "I'm playing an Italian cello, with French bows, Austrian and German strings, my daughter was born in Paris, my older son in Brussels and my younger one in Italy, I'm driving a Japanese car, wear a Swiss watch, an Indian necklace and I feel at home everywhere where people appreciate and enjoy classical music."
As an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist during the last 25 years he made well over 30 recordings with such orchestras as Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Orpheus und Chamber Orchestra of Europe and others.
His recordings have enjoyed world-wide critical acclaim and have been awarded five times the prestigious Record Academy Prize in Tokyo, three times Echo Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, Grand Prix du Disque in Paris and Diapason d'Or of the Year as well as the coveted Grammy nominations.
Truly a world-class musician and regular guest in most major International Festivals he collaborated with such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Lorin Maazel, James Levine, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Daniel Barenboim and his partnerships have included artists as Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Nelson Freire, Peter Serkin, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, Vadim Repin, Maxim Vengerov, Julian Rachlin to name just a few.
One of the highlights in his career was the year 2000 -- it was mainly devoted to a world-wide Bach tour which included over 100 concerts! In order to express his deep admiration for this great composer, Mischa Maisky has recorded Bach's Solo Suites for the third time.
TJ: You were born in Latvia. I thought you were from Russia.
MM: I was born in Latvia, but only by a mistake of destiny, which means my parents just happened to be there at the time. My father had been sent to Latvia from Russia to work after World War II. My family is not Latvian.
I'm not Russian either, though people started calling me a "Russian cellist" when I lived in Israel. I find this funny because throughout my first "life," as I always call it, I wasn't considered to be Russian at all. I was a Jew, which was made clear in my Soviet passport: "Nationality: Jewish." Very few people in the West realize that this is how Jews were treated in the Soviet Union.
I prefer to think of myself as cosmopolitan. I was born in Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time, and I was educated in Russia. I then repatriated to Israel in 1972. I say "repatriated" instead of "emigrated" because they never refer to us as "immigrants" in Israel. We are repatriates. Israel sees us as merely coming back home, even if it took 2000 years. Anyway, I repatriated to Israel and I now live in Brussels. I play an Italian cello. I use mostly French bows, though lately I've been trying out some modern German ones. I use German and Austrian strings. I drive a Japanese car. I have an Indian necklace and a Swiss watch. My daughter was born in Paris, my older son in Brussels, and my little one in Italy. I guess I'm a citizen of the world!
Were your parents musicians?
Not at all, though they loved music. They grew up in the period right after the Russian Revolution, which was a very difficult time, and they didn't have the opportunity to study music. They were very much aware of their own missed opportunity, so they made sure their three children studied instruments. I am the youngest of the three. The eldest, my sister, is a pianist who lives in Israel. My brother started as a violinist but switched to musicology, organ, and harpsichord because of his passion for Bach. When it was my turn my mother said she wanted to have one normal child, since having two children study music was more than enough, but I was anything but normal.
When did you start playing the cello?
I started quite late by Russian standards. It was the same year I quit smoking.
When was that?
When I was eight years old. I started experimenting with smoking when I was five and I quit when I was eight. I haven't touched a cigarette since.
My parents took me to a psychiatrist when I was seven years old because they couldn't figure out how to calm me down. I couldn't sit in one place for more than a few seconds and it turned out I was a hyperactive child. When I suddenly announced that I wanted to play the cello, nobody believed me and they tried to convince me that it was a crazy idea. I cried, "No, I want to play the cello! I want to play the cello!" And here I am, 51 years later.
Did you study at the Leningrad Conservatory?
No, I went to the music school that was associated with the Leningrad Conservatory. I moved to Leningrad when I was 14 and spent four years there. Then I went to the Moscow Conservatory in 1966 to study with Rostropovich after I competed in the Tchaikovsky Competition.
How did you do in the competition?
I was given Sixth Prize. Karine Georgian won the Gold Medal. I was the only participant out of five Soviet cellists who wasn't a student of Rostropovich at the time, but he had decided accept me as a student after the competition. He later told me that he had tried to push me further down in the competition in order to make sure I was only awarded a Diploma, which was given to the bottom four competitors of the final twelve. He had attempted this because he wanted me to compete again in four years and hopefully get First Prize, which I wouldn't be allowed to attempt if I were in the top eight. I was one of the youngest competitors along with Nathaniel Rosen -- I was 18 and he was 17 -- so I would be much better next time. In any case the results were largely determined beforehand, even though most of the Western members of the jury, like Piatigorsky, Fournier, and particularly Cassadó, were very much in favor of me getting a higher prize than I did. Cassadó even recommended me for First Prize, which was ridiculous. Rostropovich said there was no way I would have made it into the top three. Given that the competition results for the top competitors were more or less determined in advance by the Soviets and their Eastern European allies, I was fortunate to get as high a prize as I did, though my career may have taken a very different path had I been given another shot. David Geringas ended up winning four years later and his career flourished. Nathaniel Rosen, who had been awarded a Diploma in 1966, was given the Gold Medal in 1978, which instantly put him on the international stage.
I don't mean to go on so much about the Tchaikovsky Competition. I actually don't agree with the idea of competitions, since I believe that music is too subjective a field to be judged as if it were a sporting event, which is why I have never agreed to be on a jury at a music competition.
You mentioned at the 2007 RNCM Cello Festival that Rostropovich gave you money when your father died.
Rostropovich gave me much more than money, he was like a second father to me. My father had died very suddenly, literally within two days of when he was diagnosed with cancer. He hadn't been to the doctor so nobody knew just how sick he was until it was too late. I was in a state of shock when I returned to St. Petersburg from the funeral to prepare for the 1966 All Soviet Union Competition, which was only three weeks later. My heart wasn't in it and I didn't feel like playing.
Rostropovich had been teaching master classes in St. Petersburg when I returned and I showed up as I always did. He had heard of me by then because word had gotten around that I had won the All Russia Competition. He had also heard that my father died and he sent somebody to buy a bottle of vodka. When the vodka arrived he kicked everybody out of the room except me. He then spent an hour drinking his bottle of vodka and talking to me about his life, about how his father died when he was 13 years old, and how I had to play in the competition in memory of my father, and so on. He gave me quite an inspiring speech and I decided to play in the competition. I ended up getting third prize.
Rostropovich helped me financially after the competition since I was living in very difficult conditions in a boarding school with 22 other boys in the same room without showers. I tried to protest his generosity, but he said, "No, no, this is from your father," referring to himself. I went on to study with him and we became very close, much closer than the typical student-teacher relationship. I felt like he was a second father to me and he confirmed a few years ago that I had always been like a son to him.
He may have taken me under his wing because one of his only unfulfilled ambitions was to have a son. He had two daughters, of course. According to him, his father was an incredibly gifted cellist, conductor, and composer, and Rostropovich wanted a son who would play the cello and continue the tradition. He was actually very angry with me when he saw pictures of my children and noticed my son playing the violin. "What is this?! Your son must play the cello!" I tried to tell him that my daughter plays the piano and my son plays the violin, and that I have a family piano trio in the making, but he wasn't happy at all. He would probably be happy now if he knew that my new son, who is two and a half years old, has his own cello and is already trying to play it. Maybe I will have a cellist-son after all.
How long did you study with Rostropovich?
I formally studied with him about four years. He had been an idol of mine since I began playing the cello. As I often say, my neck hurt because I looked up to him so highly. To have the opportunity to study with him was a dream come true. I attended as many of his concerts as I could and I collected his pictures, programs, records, and other paraphernalia. I made sure that I was present at all of his master classes in Leningrad. It was a great honor to study with him at the Moscow Conservatory.
I was incredibly fascinated by his teaching and somehow I got the idea of recording his lessons while I was at the Moscow Conservatory. I used my prize money from the Tchaikovsky Competition to buy a secondhand Sony tape recorder and I ended up recording lessons for the next four years. I figured there was no way anyone could absorb the unbelievable amount of information, energy, and imagination that he imparted. The recordings allowed me to go back and listen to him again and again.
Eventually my tape recorder wore out and I decided to look for another one. The authorities used my search for "contraband" as a pretext for arresting me and they put me in jail, which meant that I was not allowed to complete my studies. The real reason they arrested me was that my sister and her family had repatriated to Israel in 1969, which dramatically changed my life inside the Soviet Union. My concerts suddenly disappeared after she left and of course I couldn't go abroad, since the authorities suspected that I would follow her after I received my diploma. I must confess that they were on to me, but the diploma was not as important as having the opportunity to study with Rostropovich. I was a good student and a prize winner at the Tchaikovsky Competition, so the authorities couldn't justify kicking me out of school. Instead they watched and waited for me to make a mistake, and I ended up spending the next four months in prison and then fourteen months shoveling cement, doing my part to build Communism instead of playing the cello.
I then committed myself to a small mental hospital for two months with the help of an influential Jewish psychiatrist in order to avoid military service. This was the only safe way to do so. Otherwise, if I had applied for immigration, they would have forced me into the military and I would have been trapped in what was basically another kind of jail for the next three years, after which they could always claim that I knew some State secrets and prevent me from leaving altogether.
Did Rostropovich stand up for you when you were sent to prison?
He tried, but the timing wasn't right. If it had happened a year earlier, he probably could have helped. He had enjoyed an incredibly privileged position and could call Brezhnev himself or anybody else in the government for that matter. But I was arrested in the summer of 1970, when he was having his own troubles with the government because of his defense of Solzhenitsyn. There wasn't much he could do.
Though I didn't get my diploma at the Moscow Conservatory, I did receive a much more complete life education because of my experience. Believe it or not, I actually don't have any feelings of anger or resentment about my past. I don't regret anything that has happened to me because I believe that it's very important to try to find the positive elements in life experiences, even painful ones.
Who was your primary teacher from a technical standpoint? Rostropovich?
Not at all. I was brought up in the Soviet system, so I learned certain aspects of technique while in music school. Despite this, I still proudly refer to myself as a "half-amateur cellist." I feel very connected with amateur cellists, not only because, like them, I love music more than just about everything else, but because I hardly know anything about how to play the cello. I don't recall anybody ever showing me how to play, which is why I don't teach.
I had a very good teacher in Leningrad, whose last name was Fischmann, though I didn't learn much from him. He was a very gifted cellist with a beautiful sound and he was very musical, but he essentially had four jobs. He taught in three different schools, including the Leningrad Conservatory, and he performed in a trio. Basically, he was too busy to teach properly. I therefore played the cello more or less intuitively without any deep understanding of how I did it. Even to this day, when people ask me how to hold the bow or something, I always reply, "Ask me something easier," because I literally can't explain it. I've read some of your interviews, in which cellists talk about technique in painstaking detail. I am in awe of these teachers' understanding, since I couldn't begin to talk about cello playing in such a sophisticated way.
You went to Israel after your time in a mental hospital.
I had not played the cello for almost two years prior to repatriating to Israel. I started playing almost immediately and two months later I played my first concert with the Israel Chamber Orchestra. After that I played with every orchestra in Israel and I performed in many recitals. I was then invited by Isaac Stern to play a concert in Carnegie Hall for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and I ended up playing seven concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the United States. It was on this small tour that I discovered how important a conductor can be. I played the same piece with three different conductors -- Daniel Barenboim, Andrew Davis, and Zuben Mehta -- and the orchestra sounded completely different with each one.
Why did you then choose to study with Piatigorsky in 1974 when your career seemed to be gaining momentum?
My career was still in its infancy, and it was a dream come true to study with Piatigorsky because he was such a legendary figure in Russia. I feel incredibly privileged to be the only person to have studied with both Piatigorsky and Rostropovich. It was Piatigorsky who first noticed this, actually, not me. There were plenty of Rostropovich students and there were plenty of Piatigorsky students, but somehow I managed to be the only one to have studied with both of them. I feel lucky to have studied with, not only two of the greatest cellists of all time, but with two of the great cellist personalities.
Before I left Russia, I asked Rostropovich if I should complete my education and get my diploma in the West, since I hadn't completed my degree in Moscow. Rostropovich said that a diploma is just a piece of paper, but how important it is depends on where I went in life. If I were incredibly lucky and could get enough concerts to support myself, then he thought I would be fine without the diploma. But he warned me that it would be extremely difficult for a young unknown cellist to develop a solo career in the West, "particularly the first fifty years. Then it would be easier after that." Rather than play in an orchestra or teach in order to earn a living, he recommended that I try to get a scholarship and study with someone. I asked him for suggestions about who to study with. He said, "There are two major cello schools, one Russian and one French. Since you have already tried Russian, you should try French." I prodded him for a more specific recommendation and he said, "This is really difficult. Maréchal is dead. Fournier doesn't teach. Navarra teaches much too much. Tortelier is a genius but a bit too crazy for you. Gendron, hmmm, it's not that good anymore. You know what? The best French I can recommend is Piatigorsky." This was funny become Piatigorsky was a Jew from Russia living in California. His only French connection was his wife, who was the daughter of Baron de Rothschild. "Piatigorsky is the only one I could wholeheartedly recommend. He's a great cellist, a great musician, a great personality, and so on." I didn't get at the time that somewhere deep in his heart, Rostropovich was hoping I'd realize that after him there could be nobody.
When I went to Israel, I played for Zubin Mehta, as all Russian immigrants did at the time. Mehta was very friendly with Piatigorsky and he recommended that I go to him as well. He said, "You have the time and he's not young and he's not healthy. You never know how long he will be around, so go. You will never regret it." And so I went to Piatigorsky and I've never regretted it, though I must confess that my career could have gone in a completely different direction had I listened to Isaac Stern's advice, who told me to go to New York instead of Los Angeles. He said, "You think you've come to the West. I have news for you: this is the Middle East. You have to come to America, where the real musical scene is. You have to learn English. You have to play chamber music, which you never did at the Moscow Conservatory. I will arrange for a scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation so that you can come to United States for six months and learn English. Then you can listen to and meet people and you can breathe in the atmosphere of the music business. I'll arrange for you to go to the Marlboro Festival for two months in the summer so you can play chamber music with great musicians." Then he said, "Don't misunderstand me, you are a great artist and so on, and of course you have had great teachers, but if you're in the United States you might as well spend a couple of months studying with somebody else so you can get a different perspective." He was implying that I study with Leonard Rose, though he didn't just come right out and say it. Being very naïve, I told him, "It's amazing that you suggest these things because that's exactly what I want to do. Of course I want to go to America and learn English, and I would love to go to the Marlboro Festival, but my dream is to study with Piatigorsky." Mentioning Piatigorsky pretty much blew my chances at a jumpstart in my career from Isaac Stern, since Piatigorsky wasn't part of the Stern circle in New York. Piatigorsky was more associated with Heifetz and the West Coast was like another planet as far as Stern was concerned.
Who knows how my career would have developed had I gone to New York instead? This was right around the time when Jacqueline du Pré had stopped playing and the so-called "Jewish Mafia" was looking for a cellist to get behind. I had just come from Russia and I had played a lot in Israel, so I was a great candidate. Instead, another fantastic cellist who had studied with Leonard Rose started playing with Stern right around this time. His career ended up being transcendent.
Regardless, I ended up spending what was in many ways the best four months of my life when I went to Piatigorsky. I don't mean to imply that he was a better teacher than Rostropovich, since to rank them would be as silly saying that Mozart was a better composer than Beethoven. But I was definitely a better student while I was with Piatigorsky. I was older and I had much more life experience, since the last two years of my life in Russia were like twenty years.
I felt like I was getting a fresh start in life and I was full of enthusiasm and positive energy. At the same time, Piatigorsky was nearing the end of his own life and he knew it. When it was time for me to leave Los Angeles, Piatigorsky told me that he didn't want me to go. I ended up spending a very late night at his house on my last day and as he walked me to my car he said, "You know, Mischa, I don't think I'll ever see you again." I replied, "What are you talking about? I'm coming back next year!" He said, "Yes, but I'm very ill." He knew his time was near. For some reason that I now forget, I never did go back the next year and he died. He was right.
Studying with him was extra special because I hardly spoke a word of English and he spoke beautiful Russian, in a style that is no longer heard. I ended up being his last chance to pass on his experience and ideas in his native language. Fortunately, I was incredibly anxious to absorb whatever he had to say. I was like a sponge. As a result, we had an incredibly intense relationship.
I went to his USC masterclass twice a week and I played for him at his house almost every day, each time playing a different piece. My studies were very different than his other students, like Raphael Wallfisch, who studied with him longer and in a more traditional way, concentrating on particular pieces for many months. I had a very different experience because I tried to play everything I could for him, even pieces I couldn't quite play, so that he could give me a general idea of what he strived for. I must have played at least a hundred different works for him in four months.
After our private lessons we would play chess, since we were both passionate about the game. Then we went for long walks and talked about all sorts of things, and not just music. Then we would have lunch together, usually at Hamburger Hamlet, which was one of his favorite restaurants.
He was such an incredible gentleman that he would find ways of giving me very important advice in a very subtle and indirect manner. For instance, he once quoted something Stravinsky told him at the end of Stravinsky's life, "I feel like I don't have time to be in a hurry anymore." At the time I thought more about how clever the quote was rather than what Piatigorsky was actually trying to tell me. I figured out later that he was trying to say that I needed to slow down and be more patient. He was right, of course. I was 26 year years old and I felt like I had to make up for lost time, since I had to start over in so many aspects of my life. I was in a new country, I didn't speak the native language, I hadn't played the cello for two years, nobody knew me, and I didn't have my own cello. I felt like I was way behind, especially after watching so many wunderkinds in the West who were developing major careers. I was in a hurry and I was trying to do things too fast. It has been over thirty years since Piatigorsky died, and I still feel his presence in the sense that I am still digesting his ideas and feeding on the positive energy he directed my way.
How would you compare the teachings of Rostropovich and Piatigorsky?
Though they were very different people, they were very similar in their teaching approach. There were things Piatigorsky said that Rostropovich said as well. They even used exactly the same expressions at times. How this could occur I can't be sure. They were well acquainted with each other and Rostropovich visited Piatigorsky's house a couple of times when he toured in the West. Of course, Rostropovich didn't need four months of master classes with Piatigorsky to pick up certain things.
Both rarely demonstrated on the cello and both believed strongly that, as important as the cello is, it is just a tool for conveying the music's message, for communication. These days, many young people seem to prioritize the instrumental aspects of playing over the music they play. They believe that in order to succeed they must play louder, faster, and cleaner than anybody else. The danger of this approach is that the music becomes secondary, since a performance becomes more about how well somebody plays instrumentally instead of about the music.
Both Piatigorsky and Rostropovich helped their students open up and develop their imagination. Both also helped their students figure out what a composer wanted to say, how the music affected them personally, and what their musical goals were. Once a musical vision was clarified, then each student was free to find his or her own path to this goal. There are many ways to one's musical goal and it didn't matter which one was taken as long as the end result was what a student was striving for.
When you go to a great restaurant, you don't go to the kitchen to see what's going on. What is important is what you are served at your table. You care about how the food tastes and looks, not how it was made. The same idea applies to music. The final result is what matters, not how you achieve it.
Neither Piatigorsky nor Rostropovich tried to create copies of themselves. After I played in the Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the jury members called me a "future Rostropovich" in the press. This of course was the greatest compliment imaginable for me at the time, and my managers used it for publicity when I came to the West. I must confess that I was never thrilled with such a title, however, since I never wanted to become a second Rostropovich, as if such a thing were even possible. I would say the same thing about Piatigorsky. They were each unique individuals, as we all are, and I couldn't copy them even if I tried. Instead, I wanted to become the "first Maisky." Fortunately, both Piatigorsky and Rostropovich had the same goal for me. Both were amazing at encouraging their students to develop their own personalities in a very creative way.
My impression is that their approach is very unique, since many teachers seem to dictate bowings and fingerings to their students and work relentlessly on technical mastery. Rostropovich and Piatigorsky never discussed such matters. Rostropovich always sat at the piano, playing whatever part was necessary, whether the cello, piano, or orchestra part, as he painted mental pictures of what was going on in the music, though the pictures were different each time. I recall about a dozen lessons on the Debussy Sonata, for example, and each lesson was completely unique. It was amazing how he could find so many ways to discuss the same piece. Every lesson with Rostropovich was fascinating and incredibly inspiring.
The four months with Piatigorsky probably involved more total "face time" than I had in the four years I studied with Rostropovich. Rostropovich was on tour so much that he would be gone for a few months at a time. But when he returned, he was like a tornado, and he radiated with such intensity and energy that we would remain inspired until he returned from his next tour. My time with Piatigorsky was very different, since he was nearing the end of his career and he performed much less.
I feel lucky that I had a very special relationship with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky. Rostropovich became my father in my first life and Piatigorsky became my father in my second life.
Your life certainly turned around after you left the Soviet Union.
I feel incredibly lucky, which is why I don't dwell on my past hardships. I love what I do for a living. I studied with and became close with two of the greatest cellists in history. I am also the only cellist to play more than 20 concerts and make three recording with the great Leonard Bernstein.
You also met Pablo Casals.
Yes, I met him just two months before he died. When I first went to Israel in the summer of 1973, Pablo Casals had come to conduct a youth orchestra. I had performed Schelomo in Jerusalem when Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, and Sascha Schneider were in the audience. They had tried to bring Casals but he didn't feel well that night, so they arranged for me to play for him in his hotel suite a few days later. I played in front of him, his wife Martita, Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, Eugene Istomin, and Sascha Schneider. One couldn't ask for a more illustrious audience! I have a picture of that night, which was August 18, and he died at age 96 on October 22. I showed the picture to Martita at the end of November 1973 in New York and she said she had suspected at the time that that might be his last picture. It turned out she was right, because, unbelievably, nobody took his picture ever again. My time with him was an amazing event because there had been talk for many years about him visiting the Soviet Union but he never made it, and I managed to meet him right after I left the Soviet Union.
I spent almost three hours with him, which I can't believe my good fortune. I played the complete Bach d minor Suite with all repeats. Then I played the g minor Gamba Sonata with my brother on the piano, and, believe it or not, the complete Dvorak concerto!
He felt well that day and was in good humor. After he listened to me for an hour and a half, he talked a lot, including commenting on how high my strings were. I have a picture of him trying to press my strings down on my cello without much success. He literally couldn't press my strings to the fingerboard and he didn't understand how I could play.
His only sign of old age that day was that he kept switching from one language to another without realizing it. He spoke English and then suddenly he would speak French, Spanish, and then he'd return to English. It didn't matter to me because I didn't understand a word of any of these languages. Luckily, Sascha Schneider acted as translator from each language to Russian.
What did Casals say?
He talked about a lot of things, including his only visit to Russia in the summer of 1917. Glazunov had advised him while he was in St. Petersburg to not go to the other side of the river "because there was a bunch of shooting going on over there." Casals didn't recall what the shooting was all about. I found this quite funny because he didn't remember that he was in the middle of a major historical event, the Russian Revolution.
Perhaps the most frightening thing was to play Bach for him. Frankly, I was a bit depressed by his reaction. "Young man, I personally don't think that what you do has anything to do with Bach. However, you are so convinced by what you do, that it actually sounds very convincing." Isaac Stern calmed me down afterwards during lunch, saying that he thought I had received the highest compliment a young cellist could receive from Casals. I now prefer to take what he said as a compliment. I certainly didn't play Bach like him, as if anybody could, and I was never one to imitate anybody, so I'm not surprised by his reaction. Lately, however, I've come to realize just how much I have been influenced by his recording of the Bach Suites, which I have listened to repeatedly since I was a teenager.
Of course, I was influenced by many musicians besides Casals. Unlike some of my colleagues who point out in your interviews that they never listen to other cellists or other recordings, I freely admit that I do. I have more than 45 recordings of the Bach Suites alone and I listen to every one of them, some of them many times. I listen to my colleagues' recordings of other works too, and not just cellists and not just classical music. I even listen to my own recordings from time to time to get a sense of my own development or lack thereof.
I go to live concerts whenever I can, which is why I attend festivals such as the ones in Manchester and Kronberg. Yes, I get to play too, but the great thrill for me is to listen to other people play and to meet old and new friends. I barely had a chance to touch my cello during the Manchester Festival because I went to as many as four concerts per day and master classes in between. I believe very strongly that one can find something valuable in any performance, even if I don't agree with the interpretation or if mistakes are made.
Is it true that your Montagnana cello was given to you by an anonymous donor?
The story of how I acquired my cello has been greatly exaggerated over the years. I like to think that the story is interesting enough without all the hyperbole.
I left Russia with almost nothing. I did have a piece of wood that was cello-like, but I didn't think of it as a real cello. Charles Beare, who was known for his generosity to young musicians, lent me a very nice Grancino cello, which I used in my 1973 Carnegie Hall debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg, playing Rococo Variations. After everybody cleared out after the concert, a gentleman who had been waiting patiently backstage introduced himself and said that he had heard I didn''t own a cello. His uncle was an amateur cellist and apparently had a very beautiful cello that his uncle loved so much that he never wanted to part with it as long as he could play at least five minutes a day. But now his uncle was 94 years old, partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, and couldn't play at all. His uncle didn't want to sell it to a dealer, who would treat it as a mere business transaction, and he didn't want to sell it to an orchestral musician. He wanted it to be played by a young and talented solo cellist who would perform in public so that others could enjoy the instrument.
The next day the man brought me to his uncle and I spent several hours playing for him and chatting. By the time I was ready to leave he had tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. He said, "Now I can die peacefully knowing that someone is going to play this cello and that people will hear it." He would have given it to me as a present, but it was the only valuable thing he owned and he was a man of rather modest means. At age 75, his wife was a relative youngster and he had to leave her something when he died, but he knowingly offered it to me for less than thirty percent of its value.
I was still heavily in debt from when I had left Russian so I couldn't afford to buy the cello myself. But I was lucky that a few nice Jewish people in New York raised some money through the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Foundation bought the cello for me, though the Foundation retained ownership. I fell in love with the cello and lived in constant fear that the Foundation would want to take it away from me. If my career went well, they might say that I could afford to buy my own cello and that it was time to give another young musician a chance to use it. If my career faltered, they might say that they had given me a shot at the big time and now it was somebody else's turn. I loved the cello so much that I couldn't imagine my life without it, so I eventually secured a loan from a German bank and bought it from the Foundation. I now own the cello outright.
My cello and I have gone through several stages in our relationship. I call it my "beautiful lady," since the word for cello in Russian is feminine. In Italian and French it's masculine and in English and German it's neutral. My cello is therefore a "she." Anyway, we fell in love at first sight. Then we had a wonderful love affair while she belonged to the Foundation. Then we became engaged when I bought it from the Foundation. Now that I've paid off the bank we are married for life. It's been 34 years since we first met.
You play with a long endpin, not a Tortelier endpin.
Rostropovich brought the Tortelier endpin idea back to Russia after touring in the West. He expected us all to use it too, which I did for years. But then I started having lower back pain, which I attribute to not sitting all the way back in the chair. I've always sat on the edge of my seat when I play since sitting back seems more lazy and non-committal. I eventually found the middle ground and started using a long endpin instead. I reap the benefits of the cello being more horizontal -- arm weight does most of the work and better projection -- while still enjoying the freedom of sitting on the edge of my chair.
I notice that there is a ever-present intensity in your performances.
I just play the way I feel and I try to give everything I have to the people who come to listen. People appreciate it when you open your heart to them and I'm happy to do so. Emotional generosity and expression are the most important things when performing.
I never play for musical connoisseurs because they don't need me. They can appreciate music just by looking at the score. I play for the people who may be listening to a piece for the first time in their lives and I try to express as much as I can and as strongly as I can in an effort to help them appreciate at least a large part of the piece.
I am well aware that I am sometimes criticized for my intense style but it doesn't bother me. The more personality one has, the more passionate will be one's fans and detractors. It would be much worse if people were indifferent to my playing. It would also be horrible if everybody loved my playing because I know some people have bad taste; if these people like my playing, something must be very wrong.
Your intensity comes through when you play Bach too.
Some people think my Bach is too Romantic, which I take as a compliment. I believe that Bach was one of the greatest romantics of all times. One shouldn't forget that in addition to his wonderful music, he had twenty children. Otto Klemperer was once told that it was discovered one shouldn't play Bach with vibrato, to which he replied, "Huh? Twenty children and no vibrato?"
I realize this may seem odd, but I don't consider Bach's music to be baroque. I believe calling Bach a "baroque composer" is an insult to his genius because he was much, much larger than this. People such as Bach cannot be categorized so easily and those who try to do so are diminishing him and his accomplishments, not to mention that such a label doesn't begin to capture his essence. In addition to being one of the great intellects of all time, he was a passionate human being who I'm sure loved great food and drink. I agree with Pablo Casals when he said that there is no emotion known to human beings that is not in Bach's music. It's all in there and we just have to dig deep enough to find and express it.
Vladimir Horowitz once said that "all music is romantic," and I couldn't agree more. Playing romantically means playing with feeling and emotion, and of course people in the 18th Century felt things just as deeply as we do today. I don't mean to imply that one should play Bach like Shostakovich, I'm just saying that Bach was so far ahead of his time that he's probably spinning in his grave as he watches us trying to go back 300 years. To regress in our approach is to go against his own mentality and his own progressiveness. He was such an innovative and experimental person by nature that he would be appalled if he were to see how we argue amongst ourselves about how to play his music "correctly."
His music is full of invention and experimentation. Just look at the last cello suite, which he wrote for a five-string instrument, or look at the variety in the Well Tempered Clavier. I have no doubt that if somebody were to give him a modern bow, he would be thrilled to explore its possibilities. I strongly disagree with those who insist that Bach must be played a certain way. There is plenty of room for different approaches and it's the variety of ideas about all sorts of things, not just in music, that makes life so interesting.
I grew up in a society where the motto was, "Those who are not with us are against us," implying that if somebody doesn't agree 100% with a certain point of view, he or she is the enemy and must be eliminated. This is how totalitarian societies are created. This is horrific on a societal level and such an approach certainly has no place in the Arts.
I've heard that you change your shirts for each piece in recitals and that they are all different colors. Are the colors intended to match the mood of the piece you are playing?
No, I mainly change shirts because I perspire a lot as I play. I originally started experimenting with different concert outfits because I felt incredibly uncomfortable in traditional tails and bowtie. For better or worse, I am one of those musicians who moves around a lot when I perform, though I don't do it consciously. It's just that the adrenaline gets pumping while I'm on stage and I use a lot of energy, which makes me perspire. Sitting in damp clothes is incredibly uncomfortable and distracting.
Some people think I'm trying to put on a fashion show, but I'm not at all. I don't go onstage to show off my beautiful Christian Dior tails or Armani dinner jacket. The music is what matters and whatever helps me engage the audience and helps them connect with the music is fine with me as long as it's respectful of the music, the composer, and the audience.
I even tried to design my own shirts at first, but then I discovered a great Japanese designer, Issey Miyake. What he can do with different materials is unbelievable. His clothes are very interesting, beautiful, unusual, and yet incredibly comfortable and practical for traveling. His outfits don't require ironing, which means I can squeeze five or six outfits in one little bag on the plane. They are also very easy to care for, which is key for somebody who travels non-stop for long periods of time.
There may be a part of me that dresses the way I do as a gesture of protest against the image of classical music as being conservative and stuffy. This image scares young people away even before they have a chance to hear the music. If they watch an orchestra on TV, all they see is a bunch of musicians looking like penguins, which must be a turn-off.
I also have an aversion to uniforms and uniformity. Musicians are not members of the military or police, so why do we insist that they dress such that their individuality and personality are hidden? Even soloists, whose job it is to be an interpreter and to be an engaging personality, are expected to wear the same thing, or at least this is what is expected of male soloists when it comes to how they dress. Why do we all have to look the same?
I used to have even longer hair than I do now and I experimented with a headband in order to prevent my poor cello from getting drenched. The newspapers in the 1970's used to call me a "cellist à la Bjorn Borg." But what does this have to do with the music? Nothing. The music is what matters the most.
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