The two lives of master cellist Mischa Maisky

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, Nov 09, 2001 - Page 7

Thirty years ago it looked as if cellist Mischa Maisky was set to become one of the Soviet Union's prize musicians. Born in 1948 in Riga, the capital of the then Soviet satellite-state of Latvia, Maisky was a grade-A student at the Riga Conservatory at the age of 17. In 1965 he moved to Leningrad, where more accolades awaited the young cellist.

Winning the Soviet Union's national cello competition and enjoying a highly acclaimed debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic that same year, Maisky was slowly, but surely gaining a reputation as one of the nation's most talented young cellists. Misfortune, however, was lurking just around the corner.

Moving to Moscow in the late 1960s in order to study at the Moscow Conservatory under the guidance of renowned cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, Maisky's life took to a drastic turn for the worse after his sister left the Soviet Union for Israel.

He was targeted as a troublemaker and harassed by the state security police. Security forces finally arrested Maisky in 1970 for buying a tape recorder on the black market. He was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp and denied the chance to graduate from the prestigious institute.

"Things changed rather drastically and for the last three years of `my first life,' as I like to call it, I didn't even see my cello, let alone play it," recalls Maisky. Two years in a Soviet labor camp didn't dampen Maisky's passion for the cello, however.

After completing his sentence in mid-1972, he attempted to re-enter the institute and finish the final year he missed due his incarceration.

Of a total of 65 examinations needed to graduate from the Moscow Conservatory, Maisky had completed 63. The two remaining tests were cello playing and a very euphonious sounding examination entitled "scientific communism."

"I contacted them after release in `72, but it was impossible for me to return to my studies in Russia," said Maisky. "I don't regret the things that happened to me because even though I never received a diploma from Moscow Conservatory I think I had a much more complete life education."

Maisky's "second life" began at the end of 1972. Now living in Israel, his sister petitioned Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, to pressure Soviet authorities to allow Maisky to join the family in the Jewish state.

In order to leave the USSR, Maisky needed a sponsor, who was expected to compensate the state for his education. The amount of cash paid for Maisky's release was, as he puts it, "substantial." It was forthcoming, however, and by 1973 the young cellist was once again performing in front of audiences.

Making his US debut in 1973 at the Carneige Hall with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic under the baton of conductor William Steinberg, Maisky was chosen by Russia's other great cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky -- who was living in Los Angeles -- to be his student. This made Maisky the only cellist to study under both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Maisky continued to win both competitions and acclaim around the world. Performing to packed houses in Europe the US and Asia, and especially Japan where the artist still enjoys a strong following today, Maisky soon became one of the worlds' most in-demand cellists.

In 1995, Maisky returned to Russia for the first time since his departure in 1972. While initially feeling apprehensive about returning to the land where he was once incarcerated, his return proved favorable for both the cellist and post-Soviet audiences.

"I must confess it was not just like going anywhere else. It was different. I never felt any particular sentiments or nostalgia, God forbid, but I still remember growing up there," explains the cellist. "I had mixed feelings about the people but the audiences were very appreciative and I enjoyed playing there."

There he not only performed with the Russian National Orchestra but was also asked by the prestigious classical label, Deutsche Grammophon, to record a series of works by renowned Russian composers Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Miaskovsky. Maisky has recorded over 35 solo and collaborative albums for the Deutsche label to date, and is planning many more.

"I don't think I can yet point to one record as my favorite. I like to think that my next one will be, but I'm still growing and will continue to release albums until I have a favorite one," continues Maisky. "Which could take sometime."

While now based in Belgium, Maisky continues to travel extensively and perform both solo and with national orchestras. While orchestral performances are now part-and-parcel of his career, Maisky finds it rather restricting and prefers to perform with a more intimate number of performers.

"I don't really get on with orchestras. I find playing with a large group restricts me and doesn't allow me to create the sound I want," concludes Maisky.

For his upcoming shows in Kaohsiung and Taipei, local audiences will be treated to a, thankfully, unrestricted performance by Maisky. Joined on stage by Argentinean pianist Sergio Tiempo, the duo will be performing Mendelssohn's Sonata No.2 in D major, Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor and Chopin's Sonata in G minor.