Mischa Maisky

One of the finest living cellists talks surviving then thriving.

Mischa Maisky is at the NCPA on Tuesday 22 November
Widely considered one of today’s finest cellists, Mischa Maisky travelled a bumpy road to success. True, he remains history’s only musician to study with cello legends Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky (even playing a private concert for Pablo Casals), but he also spent 18 months in a Soviet labour camp and had to relearn his instrument. A long-time China favourite and frequent Beijing Music Festival guest, Maisky returns with his pianist daughter for a recital this month.
Maisky was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1948 to music-loving parents determined to see their three children live out their own politically thwarted dreams. In most families, this means a trio – however, after the eldest started piano and the second took up violin, Maisky’s mother called a halt to the project. ‘She said two musicians in the family were enough,’ he recalls. ‘She wanted one normal child.’ Normalcy eluded the hyperactive Mischa, however; even a psychologist was stumped. ‘He recommended needlepoint, chess, anything that required concentration,’ he says. ‘But I couldn’t sit five seconds in one place. When I announced I wanted to play cello, no one believed me.’
Maisky took up his instrument at the age of eight, the same year he quit smoking (‘I was a peculiar child’).  At 14, he attended the Leningrad Conservatory; at 17, he debuted with the Leningrad Philharmonic. And by 18, he was studying with cello master and personal idol Rostropovich, who become a father figure, even supporting him financially when his own father died. ‘Everyone says he was one of the greatest cellists ever, but he was an even greater teacher,’ Maisky says of the legend. ‘The cello was too small for him to express all his incredible musical ideas.’
Anywhere else, this Tchaikovsky Competition prizewinner and Rostropovich favourite would have had his musical future guaranteed, but in 1969, Maisky’s sister left the Soviet Union for Israel. Suddenly, his concerts were cancelled, his passport was seized and officials sentenced him to four months in prison, and 14 months of hard labour. Maisky then spent an additional (voluntary) two months in a mental hospital to avoid military service before moving to Israel himself in 1972. ‘I didn’t immigrate, I was repatriated. That’s important psychologically. I [came] home, even if it did take 2,000 years,’ he continues, explaining that his Soviet passport always identified him as Jewish, not Russian. ‘I was born there in a mistake of destiny.’
Although he remains an Israeli citizen, Maisky soon left for California  and the tutelage of the legendary Piatigorsky, but at the time, he was thinking only of what he calls his ‘second life’, away from the USSR. ‘No one knew me, I didn’t speak English and I hadn’t touched the cello in two years, which for me felt like 20,’ he says. ‘It was like learning to walk again after a terrible accident. But I’m grateful in a way. I had so much more life experience and maturity after the labour camp.’
Although many have read of Maisky receiving his treasured 18th-century Montagnana cello from an anonymous fan, he insists that the actual story involves a passionate, 94-year-old amateur who wanted to leave his beloved instrument in the hands of a musician rather than a collector. To ensure his younger wife had survival funds, the seller dropped the price by two-thirds, but to Maisky this was an empty gesture. ‘At that time, I had only debts,’ he says. ‘The amount of zeroes didn’t make a difference.’ Fortunately, the America-Israel Cultural Foundation secured a loan, and eventually Maisky owned it outright.
‘It was love at first sight, then we had an affair. When I bought it from the foundation, we were engaged. After I finished paying for it, we were married,’ he says. ‘This year, we will celebrate 38 years together. I hope we have as much in front of us.’ No doubt his audiences feel the same.