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Text: Achilleas Pastukas
Photo: Sergey Bermeniev

An internet search for ‘Bashmet’ supplies overwhelming proof that Yuri Abramovich Bashmet is world’s leading viola musician.
With his long, dark, unmanageable hair, and his soft, slightly melancholic eyes, Bashmet perfectly fits the image of someone leading the charge in the classical world. But few give him credit for being the one who repositioned the viola as a lead solo instrument. His other achievements in the world of classical music could be stretched out to circumference the world several times, and next year Yuri Abramovich finally makes his acting debut in Sergey Solovev’s film cult sequel “2 Assa 2”.
DE I attempted to find out how the great musician manages to regulate his state of spirit to deal with the onslaught of media interest in his work and life.

DE I: You are constantly on the move with your concert programme. Are there any childhood memories that travel with you, or that emerge through your music?

Y.B.:  My entire life emerges through music. Not only my life, but the very meaning of life itself. Classical music poses the global questions facing humanity: life and death; love and hate; good and bad.

DE I: You played the violin as a child, then the guitar and now you play the viola. When you perform, what location do you feel – are you present in the auditorium? In a different dimension?

Y.B.:  It’s a dream to play the viola, or conduct, and be present in different dimensions at the same time. Performing classical music is like using a time machine. Of course we try to adhere as closely as possible to the author’s idea through the notes on the page. But what if the author lived three centuries ago, like Mozart? We try to get to know him more closely through his music. We can ask ourselves how he made a living, what he did, what he thought about, how he dressed? We can’t treat that information too literally because today we drive around in ‘Mercedes’, not in a horse and carriage. But a person is always a person. But there is always a mystical element to any performance, some miraculous moments.

DE I: Do you sense any difference in the way you perform now and your first concert from a technical point of view?

Y.B.:  Yes, I can feel it’s changed. Technically I hope there haven’t been any changes, but in terms of depth of understanding, definitely. I sometimes listen to some of my old recordings and think what a shame it is that I didn’t know then what I know now. Oistrakh put it really well. He was asked what he thinks of his own recordings and he said that a recording is a document which as the years pass becomes more and more incriminating. I can only agree with that totally!

DE I: Many artists, in particular actors, complain that it wears them out to perform the same works over and over again. Is there any music that could happily perform day-in, day-out?

Y.B.:  The most profound, the most eternal music is by Bach. Take any work of his. There are some pieces by Mozart – the famous Symphony for Violin and Viola for example. Sometimes I have to perform it 10 times in a row on tour and it’s fine, I never get tired of it. You don’t get tired of anything if it is part of the creative process. But when you have reached a certain high level of skill in performing, it can become repetitive. Bach’s Chaconne and some other works always are a little different because you always want to improve on the last time and that desire is a guarantee that the creative side won’t be boring.

DE I: What else are you interested in?

Y.B.:  I’m open to lot of things. In sport, I love hockey. When I was a child I ice-skated. After a concert, when you can relax and drink some wine, I love beautiful women. I like playing Russian billiards on a large table. I even like gambling in casinos, but not that often. You could hardly call it a hobby. I like getting stuck in to a good book – ‘Wolf of the Steppes’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’. I love film, what used to be called the ‘new’ cinema, but I can also watch ‘Chapaev’ quite happily. I really liked ‘Dogville’ for example.

DE I: It’s often said that a man with a beautiful voice always attracts the attention of the ladies, regardless s of how he looks. Are women attracted also by beautiful music?

Y.B.:  Yes, of course they are. But they more than likely treat everything as package which includes both outward appearance and moral strength. Unfortunately, women prefer insolence to modesty. For me, external beauty is all that matters. It doesn’t matter if she’s an idiot or intelligent. That’s important later, but not to start with. That’s how it was with Romeo and Juliet. To start with, he just liked how she looked and then later love entered the frame. Of course Shakespeare had to kill them off, because the highest form of happiness can only be experienced in the ‘now’! Afterwards things always get worse

DE I: Which is the most erotic instrument you have played?

Y.B.:  I think probably the grand piano, the king of all instruments. From the rest, probably the guitar, because there is that “trrra!” You can only listen to a guitar for half an hour. It has a limit. The violin is like a little cockerel which can be brilliant, strident. The viola has a warmer, more dramatic sound, but at the same time more ‘cosmic’ because the viola is genderless – neither male nor female – it’s simply an embodiment of beauty. In the Renaissance portraits by the great masters of the kings, lords, and aristocracy there were always handsome young pages standing near a house in the background set against the hills of Tuscany. But if you were to put them in dresses, they would turn into beautiful girls. That’s how the viola is – simply beautiful.

DE I: I can see that you are a very sensitive person. When you’re upset, sad, does it affect your instrument?

Y.B.:  It’s actually very sensitive. In the physical sense, when I have a cold, or a temperature, or something is wrong with the body, then the resonance changes. If the performer is ill, then the instrument is also hoarse. I am 100% connected to the instrument. And it can be offended by me. I have a double instrument case for a violin and a viola and the viola doesn’t like when they’re together. It puts up with it of course, but it begins to sound different, husky. It doesn’t like when I change my bow. It gets used to the one I’ve been using. In the summer we had a concert where it was 38 degrees in the theatre, and my ring started slipping off my finger and getting in my way from the sweat. I took it off during a short pause, and it made a difference – 5 grams and the sound was altered. It got used to the weight of my hand, of the bow, and suddenly we were down 5 grams. Let physics explain that all it wants, but everything is very delicately balanced. For example, every year a few minutes before mid-night at New Year I pick up the viola and play the first few bars of several works… Shubert, Bach, Kancheli… I didn’t do this one year and the year started badly. I got sick. I had to cancel concerts. It’s all down to a very sensitive interaction.


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