Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mischa Maisky's Masterclass @ YST Conservatory

A to Z from MM
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Wednesday (29 September 2010)

A sizeable audience turned up at the Conservatory for a cello masterclass by the Latvian-born Mischa Maisky, and for two and a half hours, were entertained by his ideas and thoughts. It was emphatically not a didactic or pedagogical session where two young players were put through the motion on their instruments and their flaws clinically corrected. Instead, it was more like a conversation with a long-lost uncle from some distant land who regales with tales of legends and escapades.

Maisky speaks English very well (his first wife was American, “Nobody’s perfect” he conceded) and expressed his thoughts very clearly and with much humour. He talks too much, he admitted, but that was the reason why people turned up in the first place. Here are some of his random thoughts:

Authenticity is expressed in the emotions, rather than playing in a dogmatic way. If music comes from the heart, it is authentic.

Bach’s music may be interpreted in many different ways. Trying to second-guess what he did during his lifetime is futile as we are living in our time. To refer to him as a Baroque composer is insulting, as his visions are is beyond time and place. He only lived during the period of Baroque music. To say he played Bach romantically would be a compliment, because all music is romantic (quoting Horowitz). About playing Bach without vibrato, his retort is “20 children, but no vibrato???”

Casals heard him play in 1973 just two months before his death. He said something like, “Young man… what you have played has nothing to do with Bach. However you seemed to be so convinced, so it sounds convincing.”
MM demonstrates a point on
YST student Lu Bingxia's cello.

Danger today is for young musicians to strive for the wrong priorities, to practise to perfection in order to use music to show off oneself. Great musicians love and respect music, and their audience more than themselves.

Expression is paramount, and that is conveyed through colours and intensity in the music. Music is led by a pulse and heartbeat, but that varies and has flexibility, not like a metronome. The level of communication separates a great artist from merely a good musician.

Formula: 2 + 2 = 4, sometimes 4.5 or even 5, but never 7. Although music is free for personal expression, it should never be exaggerated. Play what is written in the score, but do read in between the lines.

Great music scares him to death. Sometimes that is why some pieces are not performed as often as he likes.

Hearing his own playing once shocked him. He was in an audio shop when he heard a Bach gavotte played like a caricature of himself. But that was him! This prompted a second recording on Deutsche Grammophon of the Bach Cello Suites. Nothing in life is repeated, and a different attitude should be adopted when doing something for the second time.

I am the luckiest cellist in the world!” having studied with Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky.

Joy. If there is neither joy nor passion expressed in music, then you ask “Why?” and “What for?”

Klemperer’s joke, on the question of interpreting Bach. Once one singer said, “I dreamt about Bach, and he told me that was how it is performed.” Maestro Otto’s reply, “I dreamt that I saw Bach, and he said he did not know who you were!” Or something to that effect.

Love is all you need (quoting a Beatles song). Strangely or not so strangely, Murray Perahia also said the same thing at his YST masterclass.
Wu Daidai plays Brahms for MM.

Masterclasses are for students who are already masters. Here you learn to become artists, by transforming mere good playing into something else.

Nobody needs a copy of Rostropovich, or a copy of Maisky for that matter. Everyone is unique, and there are thousands of different ways to do the same thing. So develop your own identity.

Ordinary people
. He does not play for connoisseurs, but for ordinary people who want to be touched by music.

Practise music all the time, with your mind if not with your instrument. Always have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. The end result is what that matters most, how to get there is irrelevant.

A final thought: The greatest teacher is one who helps students to become their own teachers.

Mischa Maisky has the most generous autograph of them all. He joked, "When people want more than one autograph of mine, its probably because they want to exchange three Maiskys for one Yo-Yo Ma!"


chua said...

Hi Dr Chang! Interesting way of organising all the material that was presented at the masterclass. I was waiting for a review to show up on your blog when I spotted you there :)

Anyway I think the Klemperer joke went something like this: the singer did something that was rather different from the score. When Klemperer asked her about it, she replied excitedly (I love how Mr. Maisky does caricatures when telling stories, haha!), "Last night, I dreamt of the great master Bach, and he told me it could be performed like this!" Klemperer responded with great surprise, "Mmmmmm???" (again, Mr. Maisky's facial expressions had me in stitches)

The very next day, Klemperer went up to the singer and said, "Well, I dreamt of the great master Bach last night, and he told me he didn't know you!"

To add on to your notes, on the issue of HIP (historically-informed performance), I think Mr. Maisky also very rightly points out that if Bach had been given a choice between his piece being performed on modern or period instruments, we would not know if the Baroque sound would necessarily remain his first choice. The fact of the matter is that in his own time, his choice was limited by circumstances. Hence, the claim that we should employ period practices in order to stay faithful to the composer's intentions does not seem to be so straightforwardly justified after all. For all you know, if Bach had been given a choice, he might have preferred the sound of the modern cello or the playing style of contemporary players. Of course, this is anyone's guess, but surely it means that using the composers' intentions to justify HIP isn't really valid.

Sorry for the extremely long comment. Anyway, enjoyed the masterclass!

Chang Tou Liang said...

Hello Chua! Many thanks for taking the trouble to write! It was indeed an interesting session we all had! See you at the concert!