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Mischa Maisky considers himself as a citizen of the world. In a 2007 interview he did for cello.org with Tim Janof he says, "I'm playing an Italian cello, with French bows, Austrian and German strings, my daughter was born in Paris, my older son in Brussels and my younger one in Italy, I'm driving a Japanese car, wear a Swiss watch, an Indian necklace and I feel at home everywhere where people appreciate and enjoy classical music."
Born on January 10, 1948 in Latvia, Maisky started studying the cello at the age of eight.
"I was born in Latvia, but only by a mistake of destiny, which means my parents just happened to be there at the time. My father had been sent to Latvia from Russia to work after World War II. I'm not Russian either, though people started calling me a "Russian cellist" when I lived in Israel. I find this funny because throughout my first "life," as I always call it, I wasn't considered to be Russian at all. I was a Jew, which was made clear in my Soviet passport: "Nationality: Jewish." Very few people in the West realize that this is how Jews were treated in the Soviet Union. I prefer to think of myself as cosmopolitan."
An immensely talented student, he entered the Riga Conservatory. Discouraged by the rigid curriculum, however, he moved to Leningrad in 1965.
He not only won the Soviet Union's national cello competition, but also had an acclaimed debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic. In 1966, Maisky won a prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. One of the jurors, the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, invited Maisky to study with him at the Moscow Conservatory. Maisky developed rapidly under Rostropovich's tutelage, launching a concert career in the Soviet Union.
Maisky's career was threatened, however, when his sister decided to emigrate to Israel. As a relative of a person who wanted to leave the country, Maisky was targeted for harassment by the government. When he bought a tape recorder on the black market, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp.
"I ended up spending the next four months in prison and then fourteen months shoveling cement, doing my part to build Communism instead of playing the cello."
After his release, Maisky was called to do his military service. Since an exemption given to developing artists was out of the question, he entered a mental hospital to avoid military service. Finally, the Soviet authorities allowed him to emigrate with the stipulation that he pay back the entire cost of his education. The Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, made headlines by getting a rich American to pay Maisky's alleged debt to the U.S.S.R.
In 1972, Maisky left for Jerusalem. Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, subsequently engaged Maisky to participate in the orchestra's upcoming American tour.
The following year, Maisky won the Gaspar Cassadó International Cello Competition in Florence, also making his Carnegie Hall debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg. The story goes that ,after the concert, an anonymous fan gave Maisky an instrument made by 18th century Venetian master Domenico Montagnana. It didn't happen quite like that. Maisky explains in his interview with Tim Janof . . .
The story of how I acquired my cello has been greatly exaggerated over the years. I like to think that the story is interesting enough without all the hyperbole.
"I left Russia with almost nothing. I did have a piece of wood that was cello-like, but I didn't think of it as a real cello. Charles Beare, who was known for his generosity to young musicians, lent me a very nice Grancino cello, which I used in my 1973 Carnegie Hall debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg, playing Rococo Variations. After everybody cleared out after the concert, a gentleman who had been waiting patiently backstage introduced himself and said that he had heard I didn''t own a cello. His uncle was an amateur cellist and apparently had a very beautiful cello that his uncle loved so much that he never wanted to part with it as long as he could play at least five minutes a day. But now his uncle was 94 years old, partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, and couldn't play at all. His uncle didn't want to sell it to a dealer, who would treat it as a mere business transaction, and he didn't want to sell it to an orchestral musician. He wanted it to be played by a young and talented solo cellist who would perform in public so that others could enjoy the instrument.
The next day the man brought me to his uncle and I spent several hours playing for him and chatting. By the time I was ready to leave he had tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. He said, "Now I can die peacefully knowing that someone is going to play this cello and that people will hear it." He would have given it to me as a present, but it was the only valuable thing he owned and he was a man of rather modest means. At age 75, his wife was a relative youngster and he had to leave her something when he died, but he knowingly offered it to me for less than thirty percent of its value.
I was still heavily in debt from when I had left Russian so I couldn't afford to buy the cello myself. But I was lucky that a few nice Jewish people in New York raised some money through the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Foundation bought the cello for me, though the Foundation retained ownership."
Maisky has played that cello ever since. He did eventually buy it from the foundation.
"My cello and I have gone through several stages in our relationship. I call it my "beautiful lady," since the word for cello in Russian is feminine. In Italian and French it's masculine and in English and German it's neutral. My cello is therefore a "she." Anyway, we fell in love at first sight. Then we had a wonderful love affair while she belonged to the Foundation. Then we became engaged when I bought it from the Foundation. Now that I've paid off the bank we are married for life. It's been 34 years since we first met."
In 1974, Maisky approached celebrated Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who lived in Los Angeles, and became Piatigorsky's last student. Maisky is thus the only cellist to have studied with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky.
Maisky made his London debut in 1976 in a series of orchestral concerts, beginning with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His London recital debut was in 1977. His partner then was pianist Radu Lupu, who had accompanied him in a Moscow recital nearly a decade earlier.
A powerful and polished soloist, Maisky is also known as an artist who gladly shares the podium with colleagues. For example, commenting on his London recital with Lupu, The London Daily Telegraph praised the performers' "finely tempered and mutually responsive" phrasing.
In 1995, after an absence of 23 years, Maisky played in Moscow.
Acclaimed for his renditions of concertos by Haydn and Schumann, Maisky is the only cellist to have received a Deutsche Grammophon offer to record Bach's complete works for the cello. The year 2000 was dedicated to Bach by Maisky, when he performed all of Bach's cello works in three recitals in a single day, and presented 100 Bach performances around the world.
He's also recorded with his daughter Lily.