Citizen of the world

The fascinating life and times of cellist Mischa Maisky.

mischa maisky 311 (photo credit: Matt Hennek/DG)
mischa maisky 311
(photo credit: Matt Hennek/DG)
Mischa Maisky talks at an allegro appassionato – fast and passionately. A 30-minute conversation with the great cellist yields a ream of text three times larger than any mere mortal could fit into such a short time frame. But not a word is out of place. At 62, despite a biography that includes two years in a Soviet prison camp, he has the energy of a man half his age.
Famed for his intense stage performances, Maisky lives at a whirlwind pace. Our interview, ahead of his appearance at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival later this month, is conducted over the phone from his hotel room in Madrid. That evening he was scheduled to play in the Spanish capital before flying to the US the following day to give a concert in Washington, DC. Prior to Madrid, following on a Swiss tour, Maisky had a 24-hour home break in Brussels.
With such a roving itinerary, Maisky describes himself as a “citizen of the world,” but nationality has played a major role in his life. While he is often referred to as a Russian cellist, he was in fact born in Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union, where his nationality was registered as “Jewish.” He also holds an Israeli passport after a spell here in the early 1970s before his international career took off.
“I was born in Latvia to Jewish parents,” Maisky explains. “The first time I was called Russian was when I came to Israel. In Russia, I was never Russian, I was a ‘bloody Jew.’ Neither my parents nor I were Russian. Actually my parents came from Ukraine, not Russia. I was born in Latvia, but I always say I was born there by a mistake of destiny.
“I always make the point of saying that I repatriated to Israel, which makes a big difference as opposed to being an immigrant. It took 2,000 years but that’s okay, we came back home.”
Asked how he feels today, Maisky replies: “I play an Italian cello with a French bow and German strings. I drive a Japanese car, wear a Swiss watch and an Indian necklace. My first wife was American; my second wife is Italian, but her father is from Sri Lanka. My daughter was born in Paris, my oldest son in Brussels, my five-year-old in Italy and seven-month-old in Switzerland. I travel all the time; when people ask me where I feel at home, I say I feel at home wherever people appreciate classical music.”
MAISKY’S MUSICAL career started late by Russian standards. His parents were not musicians – they never had the chance, he explains – but they decided on a musical education for his two elder siblings, while he was supposed to be destined for a more conventional path.
“My parents grew up at a difficult moment between two wars and after the revolution and they didn’t have any means,” he recalls. “But they both loved music and that’s why it was their dream to give this chance to their children, and all three children – I am the youngest – became musicians. I started normal school at the age of four because for my mother to raise two children with a musical education was not easy, of course. So I was supposed to be normal, but at the age of eight I announced that I wanted to play cello and here we are.”
That announcement came after Maisky quit smoking, a habit he had started experimenting with when he was five. “My father was unfortunately a very heavy smoker, and he died of lung cancer very young because of this,” he says. “Luckily I quit when I was eight and never smoked since, so maybe it’s not so bad after all.”
Maisky quickly stood out as a prodigy and at 14 he moved to Leningrad to further his musical education, before moving on to the Moscow Conservatory in 1966 to study with Mstislav Rostropovich.
In Moscow, Maisky rubbed shoulders with some of the great names of the age, yet the shadow of Soviet repression loomed.
“I was incredibly lucky and privileged. Nowadays, I appreciate this more and more, because at the time of course it was very difficult to appreciate it,” Maisky reflects. “Not only was I privileged to study music with Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory, but on on a daily basis I was bumping in to musicians like [David] Oistrakh, [Dmitri] Shostakovich, [Oleg] Kagan, [Sviatoslav] Richter and many others, which is quite unbelievable actually.
“So of course I was incredibly lucky and privileged in this sense, and I’m very grateful for this part. But like every coin it has another side as well. My father suffered a lot from anti-Semitism even though he was a very idealistic communist and even changed his name when he was very young. His original name wasn’t Maisky; it was Bogoslavsky, meaning glory to God, but of course growing up after the revolution in an atheistic society he changed his name to Maisky after the May 1 labor solidarity day. Despite that he really suffered in Stalin’s times because of anti-Semitism, and because of losing his job, he had a very hard time when I was growing up, so I felt it since early childhood that I wasn’t Russian at all.”
THE ANTI-SEMITISM felt by Maisky was about to become more tangible. After his sister, a pianist, left for Israel, the Soviet authorities turned their attention to him, and in the summer of 1970 he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
“When my sister eventually left for Israel with her family with official permission of the government, I was still studying with Rostropovich. The authorities suspected that I would follow her – and of course they were right,” Maisky laughs. “But I really wanted to finish my education first and to get a diploma from the Moscow Conservatory with Rostropovich, which of course I couldn’t do anywhere else. So they decided to do everything possible in order not to let me get this diploma, but since I was a good student and had won a prize in the Rimsky-Korsakov competition, there was no reason to kick me out. Eventually they decided the easiest way to get rid of me, so to say, was to arrest me and put me into jail. So I spent 18 months first in jail and then in a work camp shoveling cement, or as we used to say sarcastically, ‘building communism.’ After this I spent two months in a mental hospital because it was the only safe way to avoid military service.”
Maisky is not bitter about his experiences, however. “Even though I never got a diploma from Moscow Conservatory, I always say that I received a much more complete life education,” he says. “In a way, a very peculiar way, maybe I’m actually grateful for this experience. I don’t regret it one bit because it was in many ways very positive, I must say, for my development.”
The pretext used by the Soviets to incarcerate Maisky was a charge of buying contraband goods.
“At the time it was so easy to fabricate any charges,” explains Maisky,“but in my case they actually used a complicated way of doing it. It’sa long story. I was recording lessons with Rostropovich for four yearswhile studying with him. My portable tape recorder was not good anymoreand I wanted to buy a new one. Of course it was impossible to buy onein a regular shop, and I was looking in a second-hand shop wheresometimes one could find something like this, and then in front of thisshop there was like an open black market where people were selling andbuying and talking, and somebody offered me a so-called certificatewith which I could buy a new tape recorder in the special shops calledBeryozka for foreigners and diplomats. I was so naive I bought thiscertificate and went to the shop to buy the tape recorder, and I wasarrested on the spot and that was the end of it.”
Maisky knew that the Soviet authorities wouldn’t stop at an 18-monthjail sentence, and after his release he made arrangements to havehimself committed to a mental hospital to avoid military service. “Iknew that after I served my term that if I would have applied foremigration, they could have taken me to the army. That would have meantanother three years in a different kind of jail, after which they couldalways say that I saw some kind of secret installations or whatever andI wouldn’t be allowed to leave Russia, probably forever. The safest wayto escape military service was through mental hospital. So I was luckyto meet through some friends a very influential Jewish psychiatrist,and I spent two months in a mental hospital and after this theycouldn’t take me to the army because with this kind of record theydidn’t take people to the army.”
Maisky then followed his sister, mother and brother, a musicologist,organist and harpsichord player, who was later killed in a car crash ontour in Germany, to Israel.
“It still took quite a long time to get permission, but on November 17,1972, I came to Israel and I consider this to be my second life as Ihad to start everything from the beginning. I didn’t speak a word ofEnglish, or a word of Hebrew. I hadn’t played cello for two years andnobody knew me. So basically I had to start everything from thebeginning, which again is something I am very grateful for this,because by this calculation I’m only 37 years old.”
MAISKY’S STAY here was a short one however. After playing recitals withthe Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and theIsrael Philharmonic, in the summer of 1973 he went to Western Europefor the first time where he won a competition in Florence and laterthat year made his debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall with thePittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Shortly afterward, he left for the US tostudy with Gregor Piatigorsky, giving him the distinction of being theonly cellist to have studied under Rostropovich and theCalifornia-based Russian émigré.
Both men became father figures to Maisky. “When my father suddenlydied, I was still studying at music school in Leningrad. I had won theAll Russia Competition, I was going to play the All Soviet UnionCompetition and eventually the Tchaikovsky Competition. Rostropovichheard about it and he was extremely helpful and supportive. Before Istudied with him, he was already like a second father to me. Actuallythe last time I saw him before he died he said to me, ‘You know youwere like a son to me.’ Because it was one of his few unfulfilleddreams to have a son. He had two daughters but never had a son. So Ialways say I was very lucky not only to study with such a greatcellist, teacher and personality, but also to have this very, veryclose relationship with him.
“Then I went to California to study with Piatigorsky, and amazinglyenough it was very similar in this case. He became like a second fatherto me in my second life. It was the end of his life and he felt it; hehad been very ill for a long time and he loved speaking Russian, so wecommunicated in Russian, and for him it was probably just as importantas it was for me.
“For me it was like the beginning of my new life. I was very full ofpositive energy, and it was very important, these four months we spenttogether. In four months I spent more time with him than in four yearswith Rostropovich. So again it was a very special relationship.”
Comparing the two is impossible, says Maisky. “It’s like trying tocompare Mozart and Bach. You cannot say who is the greater composer,”he protests. “But in any case when I say that these four months I spentwith Piatigorsky were the best time of my life that isn’t to imply thatPiatigorsky was a better teacher than Rostropovich. It would beridiculous to say this. I was a better student. I was totally mature. Iwas in a totally different stage of my life and so that’s somethingelse.
“If of course I was to try to compare them, both of them had a verystrong personality although a very different personality. But what isinteresting to find is a certain similarity in their approach toteaching and to music making in general. Neither of them were trying tomake their students imitate them because they realized how useless thatwas. They just wanted a student to develop his own personality and torealize that the instrument an artist plays, be it a cello or any otherinstrument, is only what the word instrument implies. It is a vehiclewhich helps us to reach the ultimate goal, which is music. Not theother away around, not to use music in order to show how well you canplay your instrument. Nowadays this is sometimes forgotten by youngmusicians.”
WITH HIS long mane of gray curls, his disdain for the traditional tailsand bow tie, and his energetic performance, Maisky cuts anunconventional figure in the world of classical music.
“To be honest, I don’t see what’s so unconventional,” he counters.“It’s a matter of personality, but there are plenty of musicians with asimilar approach, meaning they give everything they have, which I thinkis very important to make people appreciate classical music. As far asthe looks are concerned, people very often misunderstand the wholeissue. They think that by dressing differently I make some kind offashion statement. It’s not at all the case, actually quite theopposite. I believe that a concert is not a fashion show. What isimportant is the music, not what we wear. So whatever helps themusician perform the best is okay so long as it’s dressy enough anddoesn’t upset people who come to the concert.
“I always felt less comfortable in traditional tails and bow tie, so Iexperimented for a while with different kinds of shirts which Idesigned myself. Then I discovered Issey Miyake, a great Japanesedesigner whose clothes I consider very attractive, very interesting,very unusual, very comfortable and very practical when you travel asmuch as I do. You don’t have to iron them so it’s very easy to takecare of them.
“Eventually, when people started asking questions, I realized thatmaybe it was some kind of expression of protest against a certain imageof classical music. Not the music itself, of course, but the classicalmusic establishment. An image of being very old-fashioned andconservative, which is very unfortunate because it scares away youngpeople before they get a chance to hear actual music.”
Maisky explains that he has always had an aversion to uniforms anduniformity, an aversion that he admits probably stems from hisexperiences in the Soviet Union, although he says this is an issue hehas never given conscious thought to.
“I understand if you are a member of the police or military, or adoctor in a hospital or even an orchestra musician, then it isimportant to wear a certain uniform and that one should be part of thecollective. However, when you are a soloist, the individuality, thepersonality of the soloist is one of the most important qualities. Idon’t see why we all have to look the same. Then there is some kind ofsexist element here too, because women can wear whatever they want andmen for some reason have to be all in similar outfits. I find that it’snot fair.
“The same goes for long hair. I like long hair and I’m lucky enough atmy age of ‘37’ to still have a lot of long hair, so that’s it. I neverthought about it. Once a Japanese journalist asked in an interview: ‘Doyou like long hair because while you were in prison you couldn’t haveany hair?’ That was the first time I started thinking about it, and Ithought maybe he had a point there. I had never thought about itbefore. Maybe unconsciously. In a way, it’s true. But that’s how it is.
“With long hair, many people have an association with rock music, withthe hippie movement, whatever. However, centuries ago all classicalcomposers had very long hair and if they didn’t, they wore wigs, sothere is no reason why there must be some kind of contradiction betweenlong hair and classical music.”
Reaching out to his audience and reaching out to new audiences is ofprime importance to Maisky, who has famously said that he plays forpeople who may be listening to classical music for the first time,rather than for connoisseurs.
“For me there are different levels of communications between artists onstage and the audience in the hall,” he explains. “There is this basicfundamental level that creates sounds – sound waves that reach people’sears. Without this there is not music really. There are thousands andthousands of musicians who master this level perfectly well and playtheir instruments fantastically. Then in addition, not instead, but inaddition to this, there is another next level – an intellectual elementwhen the sounds transmit certain musical ideas, which hopefully reach alittle bit deeper than people’s ears into people’s minds, and there arehundreds of wonderful musicians at this level.
“However, I believe very strongly that there is, again, not instead,but in addition, an even higher level of communication, an emotionalelement, and that’s what makes the difference between very goodmusicians and great artists. When you succeed, at least sometimes, toestablish a direct link from heart to heart, and if you play withheart, then I believe that anyone who is sensitive enough to appreciatebeauty in life, be it in music, in nature or in any art in any way, canenjoy and appreciate classical music without necessarily knowing thatmuch theoretically, so to say, or being a connoisseur.”
Mischa Maisky will be playing three concerts at the Eilat Chamber MusicFestival and will also be giving a masterclass. For more