When you meet the musician Yuri Bashmet who was born in the provincial city of Rostov-on-Don, and first went to music school because of his mother’s fear of street criminals, it comes as no surprise that he has totally captivated the hearts and minds of music lovers, and is now considered the world’s leading violist. And, what’s more, a musician who has raised the viola to an entirely new level – out from under the shadows of the violin and into the limelight, from assistant accompanist to leader and soloist. His energy and charisma are just as palpable in everyday life as his virtuosity is on stage.
Since the launch of his concert career back in 1976, this phenomenally talented violist has performed at Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Carnegie Hall, London’s Barbican and the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. He has delighted concert audiences in Europe, America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, and performed with the world’s greatest musicians and conductors – Kubelik, Ozawa, Rozhdestvensky, Gergiev, and Temirkanov. The genius Mstislav Rostropovich once claimed that Bashmet had done as much for the viola as he himself had done for the cello. Friendship with another outstanding musician – Svyatoslav Richter – developed into a remarkable creative union. Their joint performances at the Moscow December Evenings Festival at the Pushkin Museum and on world tours are legendary. He has also been honoured by composers: no less than 50 works have been written for, or dedicated to him, including concertos by Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina.
New Style met with the maestro in London during his European tour with the Moscow Soloists, the chamber orchestra he founded in 1986. This is the orchestra’s second cohort – Bashmet gave up being the director of the orchestra in 1991 when its musicians decided to take up residence in France. Since 1992, the “new” Moscow Soloists have comprised talented young Russian-born musicians, all graduates and postgraduates of the Moscow Conservatory.
» You’ve been on tour in Europe for over a month now – have you been playing the same programme or changing it from one city to another?
The programme often depends on the city – everyone’s tastes are different, after all. A third of my working time – maybe even half by now – is devoted to work with the Moscow Soloists. There aren’t that many masterpieces in the viola repertoire, and that’s why the chamber orchestra format came into being. It’s interesting what orchestras around the world ask for when they invite me to perform. Often, sometimes as many as seven or eight times a year, they want Bartok, and in English-speaking countries they particularly go for Walton. Schnittke started off as the sixth composer most in demand but there came a time when he began to be played very frequently.
» How did the Moscow Soloists come about?
The young, creatively forward-thinking artistic director of La Scala, Milan, hit upon the idea of inviting me to play a solo viola concert – the first of its kind in Italy. It was a bold undertaking – it might have put off some concert-goers but being such a risky affair, it actually drew others in. The concert was a success. I was instantly offered a second concert – and that was a success, too. It was hard to find repertoire for a third concert – not many masterpieces have been written for the viola. I suggested various sonatas, transcriptions – no, they said, they must have well-known pieces. But I’d already played Schumann, Brahms and Schubert. We only just managed to scrape together enough works for the concert – there was such a chronic shortage of repertoire. Then I realised the format needed changing. The idea came up of switching to another genre – chamber orchestra conducting. I immersed myself enthusiastically in the work, even though as a soloist my attitude to conductors had once been extremely negative. With few exceptions, they hardly ever feel a work as well as players do. A violist isn’t a sound maker, a virtuoso who stuns audiences with his professionalism but someone who can get close to the composer’s original idea and convey it through his playing. Then there’s another sort – the thinker, the extravagant player who draws attention to the particular features of his own interpretation. These are rarities – among the violinists there’s Gidon Kremer, Thomas Zehetmair, and among the pianists – Richter, for instance. You must have charisma on stage, and you either have or you haven’t.
» Doesn’t it get you down that violists are the butt of jokes in musical circles?
That’s true. We are the butt of musical jokes – like Chukchi in Soviet jokes, and Belgians in French jokes, and Canadians in American ones. The greatest compliment I’ve even had was from Rostropovich – we were doing a concert together. The maestro congratulated me and thensaid that after that concert he would put a worldwide ban on jokes about violists – for at least six months.
» Maybe you could tell us one?
They’re mostly made up by musicians – by violinists, I reckon. And it’s just because they’re envious. You see, you don’t need to practise the viola as much as you do the violin. So, how about this for a joke: a conductor hasn’t turned up for an orchestral concert. What’s to be done – cancelling the concert will probably plunge them into the red. A number of phone calls are made to various conductors but they’ve all got other commitments. And then all of a sudden a violist at the very back announces that he covered the concert’s entire programme in his diploma thesis 25 years ago. So here he is offering to conduct the concert. He takes the conductor’s stand and the orchestra plays concerts for the next four days. Then a new conductor turns up, and the violist goes back to his place in the orchestra. And the violist sitting right next to him asks: “Hey, so where have you been all this time?”
» And how did you come to choose the viola as your instrument?
My parents weren’t musicians. My mother was a philologist and my father – an engineer. We lived in Rostov-on-Don, a city riddled with crime. My mother was so scared of the street crime, she insisted on me doing classes after school – something worthwhile. A violin was the cheapest instrument, and cost nine or 15 roubles. So, I got a violin after my first year of school. My mother did everything right – like Paganini, I wasn’t locked in a room, made to practise for eight hours at a time, or starved – if I got tired, Mum used to send me off to ride my bike. One can’t help recalling Stolyarsky’s famous words: it’s not gifted children I need– it’s gifted mothers. I was moved to a special music school where you got a combined general and special music education. I had to skip a year in music school to do this. Mum and I managed it all but then it turned out there were no places available in the violin section, and only some left in the viola class. Mum didn’t mind: she’d been told a viola was just a big violin, and since I was still quite small for a viola, I was allocated a violin in the viola class. When it became clear I was the best violinist in the school, my teacher Vishnevskaya didn’t want me to switch to the viola. The head said he needed to meet my parents before coming to a decision. But what I really loved most was the guitar – I played in a band and we sang The Beatles but I played the violin to please my mum. What mattered most to Mum was that I didn’t give up music. Vishnevskaya was really upset about it all – she gave me an amazing technique, and taught me to understand the way an instrument breathed. I met a good violist and he advised me to take up the viola instead because then I’d have more time to play guitar. But in the violin class the Paganinis had to practise for eight hours at a time. So I made my choice and it’s shaped my destiny.
» Do you pass on your skills through teaching?
I don’t have much time left for that but fortunately I’ve had some good assistants. And I regularly give master classes. I spend just two weeks at the Birobidzhan Conservatory – I’ve taught a lot of laureates of prestigious prizes. It’s lovely in Birobidzhan – it has the most beautiful mountains, amazing food, and peaceful, friendly atmosphere.
» What’s the history of your instrument? How did you come by the viola you’re playing now?
Destiny must have brought us together. It’s an old instrument – I bought it at the end of the 70s when I was in my first year at college. It cost one and a half thousand roubles – half the price of a brand-new small car in those days. I didn’t have that kind of money – Dad helped me borrow it off relatives and people we knew, and I repaid it bit by bit over a very long time. Six months later I was offered another – for three thousand this time. I suppose I should have sold my old viola, borrowed money again and bought the new one but the viola and I somehow got on well together. I have never looked for other instruments since then. I’ve, of course, played on Guarneri and Stradivari, and understand the strengths of these instruments. But I have much more interaction with my instrument. It’s like being married – we have this mutual understanding.
» You once played on a Stradivarius for Queen Elizabeth and commented that it hadn’t been played for a long time and sounded strained. What you mean is an instrument needs constant attention?
Even a car that’s made of metal develops problems when it’s parked in a garage – so when it’s wood you’re dealing with... Without delving into mysticism or a discussion of Rublev’s icons, I can say a bond really does exist between us. Take this as an example: one year the conductor Gretsky was unable to attend the winter music festival in Sochi. And I was supposed to be playing with the chamber orchestra he was conducting. When I got my instrument out for the final rehearsal, it didn’t sound right – it was muted as though it sensed the performance would not be up to scratch without Gretsky. Or that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. So, before the concert I sat down and polished it, held it in my hands, rosined the bow, and spent about 40 minutes with it. And then it started to sound right – that’s physics, I guess – you need to be there, and with the one you’re meant to be with. But there’s nothing special about my bow – it was bought by a friend of Mum’s in Dresden for 12 marks. Some professional joked that where he came from, a stick like that wouldn’t even be used “to giddy up circus animals”. But it sounds good. I look upon it as an extension of my arm. I have other bows that are more aristocratic, lavish-looking but you have to really strain yourself to play with them – they’ve tricky characters. But this one does what I want.
» Every year your foundation – the Yuri Bashmet Interna-tional Charitable Foundation awards the Shostakovich International Prize for outstanding achievements in music. How does the nomination process work?
The jury assesses the work and quality of a musician’s performances during the season. If a musician gives stunning renditions and develops audiences’ tastes through his work, there’s no need to spell out that he’s the best – that’s already perfectly obvious. The Prize was first awarded to Gidon Kremer, and he said something spot-on: the Prize needed to be named after someone so it didn’t seem like my personal award. Other laureates include the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, the conductor Valery Gergiev, and the young violinist Anna-Sophie Mutter. The Prize isn’t very big but it’s made its mark on Moscow life. What’s important is people pay attention to the initiative, and write and comment on it. Someone’s mum may hear about it, realise that music matters, and enrol her child in music school that very same day. I’m all for there being more people promoting youth. In my opinion, the standard of violists has vastly improved – so much so that nowadays violinists should be turning green. There are some brilliant up and coming violists. They used to feel somehow hard done by, and even looked kind of nondescript, whereas these days violas are being played by attractive young women and handsome guys – like the ones you only used to find in the violinists’ classes. No matter if such a statement sounds primitive – it’s a fact: these new people are a testament to the popularity of classical music.