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"Some people can make a long story short," says cellist Mischa Maisky in a phone interview from his Brussels home, "but I can make a long story even longer." The acclaimed musician will arrive in Israel next week for a series of concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Maisky speaks passionately, spices his stories with jokes and historical anecdotes from the great musicians' lives, and skips from topic to topic. Yet an interviewer would be well advised to listen to this monologue, because Maisky speaks always about music, and when it comes to essential things, he becomes very serious.
Born in 1948 in Riga, Maisky won the prestigious Tchaikovsky International competition in 1966. He studied with Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory and immigrated to Israel in 1973. (His music career is now based in Brussels.) The following year, he became a student of Gregor Piatigorsky - and the only musician to study with these two major cellists.
Since then, he has travelled the globe, appearing with major orchestras, performing with chamber ensembles and in recitals, and also managing to produce discs at a time when the recording industry is in decline.
"I give far too many concerts," he confides. "[I don't have] enough time for my family, and I am a good Jewish father. In May we will debut as a family trio, in which [I will perform] Beethoven's Triple Concerto with my older son and daughter."
"Luckily enough, my new family is traveling with me," he says, referring to his young musician wife and their 14-month-old son. "There's not enough time to explore new repertoire, either."
Yet busy as he is, Maisky has recently recorded a Russian Romances disc, the fifth in the Songs without Words series. "In my teens, when I could not speak German, I was struck by the idea that one can enjoy lieder - art songs - without understanding the words. Why not perform them on cello, I wondered."
Maisky admits that he is not the first to say the cello's sound is closest to the human voice, and he notes the long history of songs arranged specifically for that instrument.
"But nobody before me, I believe, was ambitious enough to attempt an entire liederabend on cello," he said.
The project took ages to research, and Maisky ultimately decided that not all music fits the cello.
"From about 600 Schubert lieders, I took only 15 - words are essential there," he said. "But with Brahms it was different."
The cellist believes that these pieces allow him to showcase some of the best qualities of his instrument. "This singing melancholic voice: I've always tried to learn from the human voice, the most perfect instrument ever, because it is not created by human hands," he said.
And, he modestly added, "It allows me, as some people think, to show my best qualities."
What qualities make a good cellist - or a good musician, for that matter?
According to Maisky, a quality of a really great artist is love and respect for the music, the composer and the audience for whom he plays, more than for himself.
"Music comes first, and not our ability to interpret it," he said. "If I had to pass on one thing I've learned from my great teachers Piatigorsky and Rostropovich, it would be this."
He also complains that, in the contemporary musical world, priorities are often switched around.
"The technical level is very high, but young musicians unconsciously come to the idea that in order to succeed they have to practice even more, play even faster, cleaner, louder," he said. "But you have to practice your mind so that it wills your hands, not the other way round."
Maisky's stylish concert attire is unconventional - the gorgeous grayish hair, the elegant gold necklace, leather trousers and a black jacket from Japanese designer Miyake Issei. Is he trying to shock the audience in order to attract it? Nowadays, when classical music suffers from a popularity crisis all over the world, quite a few musicians do that.
"Positively not," Maisky said. "I am a very physical player. I use a lot of energy. I perspire a lot. I produce a lot of adrenaline because on stage I give everything I have. The traditional 'penguin' outfit is very uncomfortable for me. I experimented for many years, and finally came to what I wear now. Maybe it also was an unconscious rebellion against the classical world's conservatism. If I create an image which attracts young people, so much the better. Because my goal is to share my love, appreciation and understanding of great music with as many people as possible."
Mischa Maisky will play with the IPO under George Pehlivanian. The program runs from November 30 to December 11 and will include cello concerti by Dvorak and Saint-Saens. On Saturday, December 10, he will also present a chamber program with IPO members at the Tel Aviv Museum.