24 January 2013, 14:35

Yuri Bashmet, the viola virtuoso

Yuri Bashmet, the viola virtuoso

Famous Russian musicians, as well as others from foreign countries have gathered in Moscow. A three-day festival in honour of Yuri Bashmet’s birthday is to be held in the Russian capital. The outstanding Russian viola player and conductor is turning 60 on the 24th of January.

Yuri Bashmet will spend his birthday evening on the stage of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Dozens of musicians have come not just to greet the hero of the day but to play music in his honour. The audience will have a rare opportunity to see musicians who hardly ever perform on the same stage at the same time: virtuoso pianist Denis Matsuev and Soviet and Russian maître crooner Iosif Kobzon, French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and his classical colleague Maxim Vengerov, the legendary Borodin string quartet and singing and dancing actor Oleg Menshikov who can be considered the personification of a band. Yuri Bashmet thoroughly enjoys this unity of opposites.

“We live at a very dynamic time, so I think that we should try and take advantage of all that life offers, and make prospects for the future on the basis of our experiments. Otherwise we’ll turn into a depository of antiquities. I am open to all styles and genres and it makes me happy.”

Yuri Bashmet has not always been so open. Today, indeed, he is the conductor of three Russian orchestras, the founder and promoter of musical festivals in French Tours and on the Italian island of Elba, as well as in the Russian city of Sochi, the host-city of the Winter Olympic Games in 2014. He manages to find the time to organize an international contest of viola players in Russia, look after his own charity foundation which awards the Shostakovich prize and do the duties of a professor of Moscow Conservatory adored by his students. But at the beginning of his career in the 1970s Yuri Bashmet concentrated on his musical instrument only. It was not in vain because he was awarded the Grand Prix at the viola contest in Munich and he began to be eagerly invited to many countries. Due to his phenomenal performance, the viola became a solo instrument in the eyes of the world for the first time and Bashmet himself became the number one viola player.

“People attached a demonic image to me – my hair was much longer then. I was called ‘a viola Paganini’ and this name still sticks to me in some parts of Europe. Another name given to me was ‘Yuri Gagarin’ because my performance was the viola’s breakthrough to the status of a solo instrument.”

It was also Bashmet’s breakthrough because composers became interested in the viola. Very few pieces were composed for the viola until the middle of the 20th century and then suddenly about 50 pieces were composed over just a few years. Many outstanding composers created their works specially for Bashmet, among them Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Shchedrin and Kancheli. Recently Alexander Tchaikovsky dedicated an opera to him. This is what the composer says about Bashmet:

“He can do absolutely anything. Whatever head-spinning passaggios you compose he can perform them all, he will understand what you meant and will perform it even better than you thought possible.”

New music continues to be born at Yuri Bashmet’s jubilee festival. Composers Jiovanni Sollima from Italy, Tan Dun from China and Arvydas Malcys from Lithuania have brought their musical offerings to Bashmet. Bashmet says that the viola is an inalienable part of his soul and happily receives these gifts.

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