Violist Bashmet is not shy about his gift

November 19, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It doesn't take long before Yuri Bashmet lets you know how important he is.

In fact, he says as much at the start of a telephone interview -- in response to an innocent question about whether he was at the Moscow Conservatory more than 20 years ago when his teacher, Feodor Druzhinin, performed the world premiere of Dimitri Shostakovich's Viola Sonata.

"Of course, I was," answers Bashmet, who will perform with and conduct his own chamber orchestra, the Moscow Soloists, tonight at 7: 30 p.m. at Temple Oheb Shalom. But he quickly adds that Druzhinin performed in the conservatory's small hall, while he was the first violist ever to give a solo recital in Tchaikovsky Hall, the main auditorium and the most prestigious concert hall in Russia.

"Do you know how important it is, this hall," Bashmet asks in his heavily accented Russian. "It is like Carnegie Hall -- one of the two most important in the world. In Carnegie, you have your memories of Isaac Stern, Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz; in Tchaikovsky, we have our memories of David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan and Sviatoslav Richter."

To these stellar lists, Bashmet clearly wants his name to be added.

"I was a much bigger name -- right from the beginning -- than Druzhinin ever was," Bashmet says. "I loved and admired Druzhinin, but he was never more than a chamber music player. In fighting for the viola and making it a hero, I've been a pioneer."

He's not bragging. Even the legendary William Primrose, the greatest violist of the first half of this century, had to take positions in orchestras. Bashmet, 43, is the first viola player in the history of his instrument to enjoy as many bookings as any star violinist -- 100 concerts a year in solo recitals and solo appearances with the world's important orchestras, not to mention an additional 50 or so conducting and performing with ** the Moscow Soloists.

"I have three or four times more propositions than I can take, but I have only 365 days in the year," Bashmet says.

If Bashmet sounds pushy, he needed to be to accomplish all that he has for the viola since his international career began 20 years ago with his victory in the Munich Chamber Music Competition.

He has commissioned 36 concertos for the viola, including one by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke that ranks alongside those by Bela Bartok and William Walton as the greatest for the instrument. He has also struggled against the conventional wisdom of managers, agents and concert promoters to become the first violist to give solo recitals not only in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall, but also in Amsterdam's Concertbegouw, Milan's La Scala and Tokyo's Suntory Hall.

The viola has always been overshadowed by its more brilliant sister, the violin, which has a higher range that enables it to soar over a full orchestra, and by its more flamboyant brother, the cello, which has a seductively baritonal resonance.

But Bashmet insists that the viola's sound -- which he calls elegant and aristocratic -- has melancholy, even tragic, possibilities for exploring the depths of the human soul.

At the same time, he admits that when he gave up the violin at age 14 -- after seven years of study -- it wasn't because he intended to become a violist. When he made that decision, Bashmet was the lead guitarist in his own rock band and had become a sensation at clubs in his home town of Lvov. It was the the prospect of having to master eternal Kreutzer exercises, Paganini caprices and Wieniawslci etudes on the violin that led to the idea of switching to the viola.

"I thought there would be more time for the guitar," Bashmet says.

"The paradox," he continues, "is that the risks I took improvising as a guitarist were very exciting. Classical music seemed to offer so little to me because everything was written down. But as I got older, I discovered what huge possibilities were buried beneath the notes. I began to feel that pop music, in comparison to classical music, was spiritually limited."

When he was 18, Bashmet left for the Moscow Conservatory, and his spectacular progress on the viola became the talk of the school. His victory in the Munich competition earned him a passport to perform in the West. But he got an even more important ticket through his frequent collaborations with celebrated pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Their recording of the Shostakovich Sonata, along with a few of Bashmet's other Russian-made records, introduced Western listeners to the violist's huge talent.

"With what I knew about the sonata and with what Richter knew about Shostakovich and about music in general, we were able to push the piece a few steps beyond where anyone else had taken it," Bashmet says.

With the opening of Russian society in the late 1980s, Bashmet's career exploded into super-stardom. He made the cover of Gramophone magazine in 1992; he had a four-concert festival, featuring the London Symphony, organized around him in 1993; he was named "Instrumentalist of the Year" at the 1994 International Classical Music Awards.

And, despite innumerable opportunities to set up residence in the West, he remains among the few famous Russian musicians who are steadfast in their determination to remain in their native country.

"I am a RUSSIAN," says Bashmet, who continues to teach at the Moscow conservatory and is the host of a nationally televised show about cultural affairs. "If I were to leave, I would lose my musical soul."

He has even founded the first international competition for violists in Moscow -- a biannual contest that began in 1993 and of which Bashmet is proud.

"I'm pleased to give other talented viola players a chance," he says. "While no one else has a career like mine, it will be OK -- in fact, it would make me very happy -- if someone does. All my life have fought not for myself, but for the viola."

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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