Cellist inspired by ‘dark memories’

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Cellist inspired by ‘dark memories’


World-renowned Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky embraces his dark past, using his cello to transform those memories into beautiful music. [JOONGANG ILBO]

With his Einstein-like curls, loose silk shirts and moving impromptu performances, cellist Mischa Maisky could sometimes be mistaken for a rocker.

In fact, Maisky has often been called the “pop star of the classical world.”

But he isn’t exactly pleased with that title, citing the fact that his music “comes from dark memories of my past.”

“I get angry every time I’m asked if I have an image consultant,” said the 61-year-old Latvian-Jewish musician, who will perform two shows in Seoul this month. “I don’t understand those people. They don’t even listen to my music.”

Maisky’s classical music career started at the Moscow Conservatory in Russia, when he began entering various competitions. But in 1970, he was sent to a labor camp for reasons that remain unknown to him.

“I want to know why I was imprisoned as well,” Maisky said when asked why he was sent there. “They didn’t give me any reasons as to why they were locking me up. My guess is that at that time, my older sister was exiled to Israel, and they were also planning on banishing me from the country as well.”

After his 18-month imprisonment, Maisky was unable to hold a cello for two years because of injuries he suffered wile at the camp. On Nov. 8, 1972, Maisky took “a chunk of wood that looked like a cello” and headed off to Israel. “This was the beginning of my second life,” he explained. “I had to start from zero again. Everything was so difficult for me and I thought that I couldn’t do anything. I was just 34 at the time, but I felt older than I am now.”

Now 61, the cellist said he feels “37 years young, not old.”

Incorporating some of the experience he gained with the Moscow Conservatory, Maisky started to build his career in Israel before heading to the United States in 1974 to study at the University of Southern California. He received support from a Jewish group and eventually shared the stage with conductors Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta as he became one of the most talented cellists of his time. He recorded with Bernstein three times and performed with him 20 times.

When Maisky is on stage, he always wears loose shirts, which harkens back to his past.

“After my experience in Russia, I hated any type of uniform or uniformity,” he said. “My wardrobe concept is practicality and individuality.”

He always makes requests to replace the buttons on his shirt sleeves with Velcro to ensure the maximum amount of ventilation. For his performance in Osaka, Japan, Maisky wore a silver and blue shirt that was custom-made for him in Itaewon.

“Many people always see me as cheerful and merry,” he said. “What they don’t see is what’s behind the smiles. I lost my father when I was 18, and I had to play in a competition the next day. Music and pain go together like two sides of a coin.

“If I didn’t experience imprisonment and other hardships throughout my life, my music would be very different.”

The difficult period of his life has passed, ushering in the height of his career. Maisky now holds about 100 performances a year worldwide and has released numerous recordings.

“I’m trying to spend more time with my family so I’m trying not to perform as much,” he said, “but it’s been proving to be difficult to do so.”

Mischa Maisky’s solo performance will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday at the Seoul Arts Center; his performance with the Haydn Philharmonic will take place at 8 p.m. on Nov. 26th at the same venue. For more information, call (02) 599-5743.

By Kim Ho-jeong [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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