Lily and Mischa Maisky: Catching the Horizon

August 14, 2017, 9:42 AM · On a sunny afternoon in Taipei (Taiwan) I met with the great Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky and his daughter, pianist Lily Maisky, who were in town for a recital at the National Concert Hall, as part of their Asian concert tour. Over the past 12 years, father and daughter have played together hundreds of concert on numerous occasions.

Lily and Mischa Maisky
Lily and Mischa Maisky.

When I asked the Maiskys what being father and daughter adds to their playing, Lily smiled and replied: "It's similar blood flowing through our veins. The fact is we have a very similar feeling for music. Music between us is a natural communication. It is hard to explain in words. I have been inspired and influenced so much by my father. I didn't have that many teachers in my life and I really learn the most from playing with him. He taught me many principles and laws of music, and the general approach to music making."

Mischa doesn't have students per se, but he is always happy to meet with the new generation of musicians. "Early on I understood that I was not talented enough to play in an orchestra or teach, so I decided to try and become soloist. This is not a joke, it all involves different qualities. Teaching – in its conventional way – is a very different profession. I never had the time or need to teach, so I don't have experience. That is why I prefer to 'teach' my way, so to say. Young cellists come backstage to ask if I give lessons and I always answer: 'I just did now.'"

"Cello has developed incredibly over the last half century or even earlier, since the great masters such Rostropovich and Casals, both of whom I had as teachers. Nowadays many young cellists prove that cello can find its own place and its own qualities. Maybe there is not as much great repertoire for cello as there is for violin and piano, but there is certainly enough."

In May this year Mischa was part of the jury for the finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, dedicated to the cello for the first time. "I could not make it for the preliminary round and semi-finals because of concert engagements. But thanks to technology, I was able to listen to a good number of the candidates on Internet."

Mischa had his very first experience as a jury member at the last Tchaikovsky Competition. Everyday after listening to the performances, he would go back to his room and, instead of having dinner, would listen to the performances a second time, retransmitted on Internet. "I was so nervous about it, for me it was new and very exciting. I thought it was a great responsibility, so I took it very seriously."

"The best thing for me about music competitions is that they give you the stimulation to work very hard, to prepare and present your hard work. After playing in a competition, I always felt that I improved greatly, a major step in my development. Without this kind of motivation it is easy to postpone your work until tomorrow. This is a dangerous mentality because there will always be a tomorrow."

Apart from the self-motivation that they provide, present-day music competitions can give young musicians amazing exposure. Mostly because of Internet, even those who don't win have the chance to make themselves known, which was unthinkable just few years ago.

Technology and social networks might make the lives of recording companies a bit difficult, but at the same time they provide people access to an unbelievable amount of information. It makes it so much easier for young people to learn, no matter where they live. "This is something we could only dream of in my time," Mischa said. "It is like everything else, it has its advantages and disadvantages. The question is to be able to use and choose, and not get distracted by all this information."

"Still, sometimes a concert should just be a moment in time and not always something which is documented," Lily said.

A few years ago, Mischa Maisky spoke of the late violinist Philippe Hirschhorn in a documentary called Philippe Hirschhorn - The Tragic Hero, saying that Hirschhorn's psychological problems stemmed from "trying to reach for something that was unreachable." That sentence struck me, and I promised myself to one day ask Maisky to tell me more about it.

Hirschhorn was Mischa's best friend; they knew each other since childhood, Mischa said. "Philippe told me once that there was a point when he touched perfection, which disappeared soon after," he said. "Ever since, he has tried to grab it again. It was incredibly frustrating for him and caused him many psychological problems."

Mischa tried to learn from his friend's experience. He understood that, as wonderful and essential as it is to try to continually improve, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.

"Music is very subjective, therefore it is open to many different interpretations," Mischa said. "The number of possibilities is infinite, and their depth is infinite. We can never say from an interpretation that it is 'the' ultimate perfect one. Perfection in music is an illusion. I always compare it to trying to reach the horizon: the closer you get, the more it goes, always. It does not mean that one should not try to get closer to it, but with the realization that you are never going to touch it, there are no frustrations."

"My advice is to always keep the fire going, to keep the passion," he said. "Playing music should never become a routine, a job. Whatever you do in life, doing it with love makes the difference in the end: the difference between acceptable, average and exceptional. It is passion that should drive you to never be satisfied and always try to improve."

"We all have talents and weaknesses; very few people can do everything fantastically well," he said. "For this you have to be a genius. There are many people who think they are geniuses but there are very few real geniuses. That is where the problem starts. I think the most important talent is to figure out what your qualities are and what your weaknesses are."

BELOW: Mischa and Lily Maisky perform "Prayer" from Jewish Life, by Ernest Bloch. From a performance at the Verbier Festival 2014.

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