Yuri Bashmet © Russian Concert Agency
Yuri Bashmet
© Russian Concert Agency
Russian conductor, violinist and violist Yuri Bashmet has significantly contributed to give the viola new prominence as a leading instrument on the world's stage. He has performed with the most important orchestras all around the world and has motivated many leading contemporary composers to expand the viola repertoire by writing significant new music for him. His ensemble, the Moscow Soloists, was the first Russian chamber ensemble to win a Grammy Award, and this year they will perform at the Istanbul Music Festival, where Bashmet will also be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. We caught up with him to talk about his career, the festival and the health of viola playing in the world today.

You started as a pupil of Vadim Borissovsky and then yourself became a master at the Moscow Conservatoire and various academies, and a jury member in several international competitions. From what you’ve seen, is the viola played today in the same way that it was 40 or 50 years ago?

I can certainly say – and I am pleased about this – that today the average level of viola players is very high, at the Moscow Conservatory in Russia as well as in the whole world. In the past, those who couldn’t play the violin switched to viola from a certain age. That's why they used to say that "a violist is a violinist with a dark past". But now everything has changed: people consciously choose viola as an instrument they would like to play. This pleases me very much because I realise that I made a contribution to the development of this instrument with my concerts and the amount of great music which has come into the viola repertoire in the last 30 years.

You’ve been a faithful regular at the Istanbul Music Festival: what makes this festival special for you, and what do you particularly appreciate there?

I really love Istanbul and the festival itself and I have performed there a few times. First of all I like the audience: the people who attend the concerts of this festival can be demanding but at the same time they are considerate and very friendly. I also like the special, artistic ambience of the concerts and around the festival, and the professionalism of the organisers. Every single detail is important for an artist and this festival is organised by great people: I always feel their attention and concern.

In a festival whose theme is “Darkness of Being, Lightness of Being”, considering the course of your career and your personality as a viola player, which of these two words applies to you most, darkness or lightness?

For me lightness is a much more important word. And I mean this not only in regards to my musical career but mostly in my own life. Of course life is different from art and music, but for me the most important thing in life is to make the goodness and the brightness play a bigger role than the darkness. Music should make people feel better, this is my absolute point of view.

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists © Russian Concert Agency
Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists
© Russian Concert Agency
You’re attending the festival with the Moscow Soloists, an ensemble you founded almost 30 years ago. What is the place of this ensemble in your career and in your life?

I have lived with this ensemble half of my life, not to mention my creative life. I created this ensemble when almost all the musicians were young students at the Moscow Conservatory, and now they are grown-up and have families and children. We live our lives together, as well as our common creative life on stage. This ensemble means a lot to me and it still has a big place in my art and my life.

You will be directing works that you have been performing with the Moscow Soloists since the beginning, most notably the transcription of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet, a work that you have recorded several times. Has your understanding of Schubert changed as the years have passed, or is he still the same fellow traveler on your musical road?

Schubert is one of the most beloved and emotionally important composers for me. My understanding of his music, as with any other composer, surely changed during my life, but my creative attitude didn’t: it is an endless process of exploring the composer’s ideas. With every new concert, every new rehearsal, I open to his music more and more. Schubert is very dear to me and I play his music on stage with great joy.

In the same concert, you will be performing the world première of a work by Alexander Tchaikovsky. This is a composer whom you know intimately, who has written a great deal for you and your viola. Can you tell us something about his music in general, and about the work you will be performing in particular?

For me Alexander Tchaikovsky is not just someone who has been a close friend of mine for my entire life. For me he is, at the same time, both a patriarch and a pioneer of the composition school. He writes amazing, very meaningful music, and I have played and conducted many of his pieces. At the same time, he has an incredible attitude towards his students, in the way he cares for them and helps them. The idea that he has shown me in this new composition that we will perform is at the same time unexpected and truly fascinating and exciting. The idea is to have a piece in three movements where in the first movement there are only three notes; seven, the whole scale, in the second; and 12 notes in the third – all notes in an octave, with all the semitones. As the world première will be performed at the Istanbul Music Festival, we will see there how the audience will react. Without the connection with an audience, without their reaction, no genuine music can be born.

This year, 2019, the festival is presenting you with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Does this award indicate that you have accomplished everything?

I hope that this award isn’t an indicator that I have accomplished everything. I have many personal creative plans for my future. I have a huge number of festivals that I direct, three orchestras, many educational projects. I have many ideas for commissioning new music. For me, receiving an award is always a happy, important and valuable moment. But it is not the end of everything and I am sure that I will never be able to say, or even think to myself, that now I have accomplished everything. I have always plans for the future and I really love that sense of expectation in my life.

Yuri Bashmet and The Moscow Soloists will be performing at the Istanbul Music Festival on the 20th June 2019. Click here for the complete list of the festival's concerts.

This article was sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival.