'Just don't play it boring'

Cellist Mischa Maisky gives a master class and insists that his students and audience express themselves.

February 25, 2010 03:36
2 minute read.
Cellist Mischa Maisky performs in Eilat.

mischa maisky 311. (photo credit: Maxim Reider)


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Mischa Maisky seems almost uncomfortable in the role of teacher; like the masters of the Far East he prefers to communicate his knowledge by example, not by giving lessons .

“Whenever a young cellist comes back stage after a concert and asks me whether I give lessons, my standard answer is ‘I just did,’” Maisky says before hearing a performance of Brahms’s cello sonata in E minor by the first of four students chosen for a master class at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival earlier this week.

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Maisky has a simple message for the students and the audience: express yourselves.

“Expression for me is altogether the most important thing musically,” Maisky tells his students. “Different colors, different intensities, different kinds of sounds.”

Individuality and humanity are at the core of Maisky’s beliefs about what music is and how it should be played. So many musicians nowadays can play everything perfectly well technically, but the communication of the music itself, the spirit, is often lost, he laments. After all, he adds, if it were just about perfection then in this day and age it would be very easy to build a little box that plays all the music ever written.

That striving for perfection is, he warns his students, one of the great dangers one faces. They must not sacrifice the music to technique, they must not let how one plays one’s instrument become more important than the music itself.

“By nature,” Maisky confesses, “I’m not the cleanest kind of player by far. I know that I could play cleaner and more correct if I would really try very hard, but I know that inevitably something even more important would be sacrificed. So this expression is in my opinion the most important thing that we try to communicate in music.”

Again and again, Maisky tries to illustrate what it is that takes music to a higher plane. “When a cellist is good ,” he says, “the sound originates in his hands; when a cellist is very good the sound originates in his mind. But I believe there is an even higher level, which makes the difference between a very good musician and a very great artist, and that is when the sound originates from the heart or the soul.”

It is the soul of the music that Maisky tries to press home, the individuality that makes every performer unique, rather than spending the short time allocated to each student on matters of technique. To illustrate his point, he tells how he has transferred his collection of Bach recordings to discs so that he can hear a particular piece performed by several artists one after the other. “I love gadgets and have on mini disc more than 30 recordings arranged by first preludes, first allemande and so on. You can listen to them one after the other and sometimes you don’t recognize that its the same piece of music. It’s totally unbelievable.”

For Maisky, it doesn’t matter how the music is interpreted, just so long is as it isn’t ugly or boring. “For me there are two ways of playing music that should be forbidden by law: to play it ugly or to play it boring,” he says. “If it’s ugly or boring then something is wrong; otherwise, everything goes.

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