Mister viola: a rock star in the classical world

Certain performers are "inscribed" in time, predestined to stir up the life of music and discover the unexplored. Yuri Bashmet is such a man - a dynamic and generous talent. Thanks to him, the world has come to appreciate the viola as a solo instrument.

Yuri Bashmet is the first violist to give solo concerts in nearly all the world's cultural capitals. Some 50 works have been written for or dedicated to him. As a conductor and soloist, he performs with the world's best symphony orchestras. Journalists call him "the new Paganini".

Reading Bashmet's remarks is a pleasure: "When I studied at the Moscow Conservatory, all the students in the Viola Department were either moronic boys or fat girls." Among instruments, the viola occupied a modest place until Bashmet blazed a triumphant trail. Its students are no longer grey mice in crowded orchestra ranks, but striking youths one can't help noticing. Bashmet headed the Experimental Viola Department at the Moscow Conservatory.

The viola is now in demand, and this metamorphosis is to Bashmet's credit. His brilliant career has consolidated his reputation as one of the most original musicians of today, to say nothing of his colourful life, sensational interviews and publicity stunts. Yuri Bashmet is a brand, a cult figure, box-office gold. He has played the music of the greatest composers in the best concert halls. He heads one of Moscow's most elegant music festivals, December Evenings, formerly the domain of world-famous pianist Sviatoslav Richter. His creative energy allows him to run, both the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra and the New Russia Symphony Orchestra.

Audiences listen to anything performed by Bashmet. His impressive demeanor is magnetic; only the lazy have not compared his extravagant look to the ecstatic image of Paganini. His TV programmes win ratings, while participation in any show guarantees a full house.

Bashmet is open to all genres, from academic art to avant-garde experiments. But he always returns to classical music, in which, in his words, one reads messages to eternity. These swift switches go back to childhood: as a music student in Lvov, the future maestro devoted all his free time to playing guitar and drums in a rock group.

Today Bashmet performs duets with bards. Or he may, as a master of surprise, throw a cloak over his shoulders and accompany a bold Cossack song on the drums. He recently made his film debut in Sergei Solovyov's Assa-2, finding enormous pleasure on the noisy set. Bashmet is indeed someone who knows how to find pleasure. Isn't that rare quality what makes for the omnivorous creativity of this man-in-perpetual-motion?

"If I leave, I'll yearn to return"

Bashmet is a true virtuoso: many of his renderings set the standard. Playing is not escaping from reality, but expansion of the universe. Classical music is not a museum of petrified exhibits, but a living and powerful force. As is contemporary music, in which Bashmet sees not labyrinths or conundrums, but a strict system that must be made comprehensible. His transcriptions may scald, soothe, torture you with questions or explain the reasons.

Bashmet's viola versions of music written from different centuries and countries always reflect the era. Discoursing on life, he arrives at his own concept: if you study music, your only god is the composer. Also important for every man is his home. That is why Bashmet has never responded to suggestions to live in some warm, luxurious corner of the globe - "I want to be free, to have the right to choose. If I left, I would yearn to return. Moscow is the creative centre. Paris and Munich are cities that are nice to arrive in, and nice to leave."

What the Queen loves
"Once I found myself playing an absolutely fantastic instrument made by the master Stradivarius. It was a concert in memory of Princess Diana in London. Playing that viola was very difficult - I was sick for ten days, my arms and shoulder ached. After the concert, Queen Elizabeth came up and asked: "How was it to play? Did you like the instrument?"
Since the viola had been loaned to me by the Royal Academy of Music in London, I said:
"Yes, it's tremendous, but it was very difficult for me. No one had played it in a long time."
"Can you be more specific about the problems you had?"
"It was like trying to ride an unbroken horse that never had a saddle on its back." The Queen laughed. She liked that a lot. Her suite moved on, and the last woman in the procession asked "Did you prepare long for your meeting with the Queen?"
"I prepared to perform Mozart on a famous Stradivarius viola," I said.
"Horses are the only thing the Queen loves." (from Bashmet's book, At the Dream Station)

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