‘Music deals with ultimate concepts of existence, such as love and death, joy and suffering, the celestial and the earthly. So as much as technique is important for a musician, the essential thing is what you are going to say with your performance, and that suggests tremendous inner work even before you touch your instrument,” says Yuri Bashmet, one of the world’s leading violists. He is due to tour Israel in early November with his Moscow Soloists Ensemble.

Bashmet, 59, an iconic figure in his native Russia, combines a career as a soloist with that of a conductor, hosts his Train Station Named Dream TV show, supports young musicians and has visited Israel many times. His international career catapulted after winning the ARD competition in Munich in 1976, being initially recognized in the West and only later in the USSR, which claimed that the viola was not solo instrument.

Bashmet says that “Music is a substance that is very much alive, and you have to be ready to improvise – even on stage.”

So where is the balance between the faithfulness to composer’s ideas and the performer’s rendition?

Granted, the composer is the boss, but while you can consult with a living composer, you can’t ask Schubert or Mozart what they really meant, so you have no choice but to guess, relying on your knowledge and feeling, such as “this color suits Brahms but is unacceptable for Rachmaninov,” says Bashmet. “But then again, it’s all a question of sincerity – everything that is artificially invented in order to be different simply ruins the music.”

So what is a good musician? “One who captures you and never lets you go,” he says.

Bashmet doesn’t agree that classical music has lost its popularity and that it is mainly elderly people who attend concerts.

“When I tour Russia with my Moscow Soloists Ensemble, I see quite a few young people in the audience of our sold-out concerts. As for regular concerts in Moscow and Europe, it is the idea behind the programming that counts. For example, in Moscow our ensemble plays an all-contemporary program for a packed hall. Young people have always been attracted to what is new, and I don’t believe there are good or bad genres. Music can only be talented or just bad. Look, The Beatles and Sting are already classics. And in our ensemble, we have quite a few crossover programs.”

More than 50 viola pieces have been composed for Bashmet. Although he is not the first great violist in the world, he was the first to position the viola as a solo instrument. After his solo recitals at major venues such as La Scala and Carnegie Hall, many composers wanted to write pieces for the viola to be premiered by a musician of Bashmet’s caliber.

“Usually, I do not intervene in the composer’s work but can make some corrections and improvements during the rehearsal period. A world premiere is a great responsibility – to the composer, to the public and to the piece. In many ways, the piece’s future depends on its first performance,” he says.

What is important for Bashmet as a teacher and what does he try to impart to his students besides technical skills?

“The school of the Moscow Conservatory has always been a school of thinking, with technique being secondary to musical ideas and the structure of the piece. I often give my students a general idea of the piece, giving them an opportunity to finish the job on their own. Then on the exams, you can immediately see what is the result of a grind and what the student has really understood. For me as a teacher, to be surprised by a fresh and logical solution of a fragment or an entire piece is a great pleasure.”

On this tour, Bashmet celebrates his 20th anniversary with the ensemble. The first part of the program features Schubert/Mahler’s Death and the Maiden and Paganini’s Concertino for Viola and Strings. The second part consists of the ensemble’s show pieces, such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and Takemitsu’s Blues Waltz, as well as pieces by Stravinsky, Shostakovitch and Schnittke.

The concerts take place on November 4 in Jerusalem; November 5 in Beersheba; November 6 in Haifa; November 7 in Rishon Lezion; and November 8 in Ashdod.

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