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Cellist Mischa Maisky hasn't played in Toronto since 1978.

“I was in Montreal last year, but this is the first invitation to Toronto I've received in over 30 years!” says Maisky over the phone from Boston, while on his current North American tour.

The invitation is long overdue, and on May 3 Maisky, who currently lives in Belgium, returns to perform at Roy Thomson Hall with the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra under Yuri Bashmet. He'll be playing Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne.

If you're not familiar with Maisky's playing, try joining the more than 10 million viewers who have watched this YouTube video and heard Maisky play the Prelude of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite in G major.

Maisky has recorded the complete Bach Suites on three different recordings, along with over 40 other CDs for Deutsche Grammophon.

Musical genius shaped by cruel twist of fate in communist Russia

When it comes to music, Maisky’s a sculptor in Michelangelo’s league; he chisels lines of breathtaking beauty and detail with penetrating insight. Maisky has the ability to make you feel as though you’re hearing a familiar piece for the first time.

It could be that Maisky’s extraordinary background has shaped his musical genius. At first glance, the cellist’s bio reads like an Ian Fleming-esque, high-octane piece of fiction set in the days of the Cold War. 

Born in Latvia in 1948, Maisky moved at the age of 18 to Moscow, where he became a student of Mstislav Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory.

Communist authorities earmarked Maisky as a troublemaker and, after Maisky attempted to buy a tape recorder on the black market, his life took an abrupt turn. He was sent to a Soviet labour camp for 18 months where he shoveled cement and had no access to a cello. His incarceration was followed by a two-month stint in a mental hospital. On his release, Maisky left Russia and didn’t return until the 1990s.

He was denied the chance to complete his diploma at the Moscow Conservatory but, reflecting on the painful experiences of his past in communist Russia, Maisky sees a silver lining.

“The most important thing that one should always remember and cultivate is the fact that one can and should try to see how full – not how empty – life is,” he says. “Despite difficult experiences I went through, I not only don't regret it, but, in a way, I'm very grateful for having had this kind of experience of spending 18 months in jail and labour camps and two months in a mental hospital. Even though I was denied my diploma, I got a much more complete life education.” 

Maisky draws on past to spotlight human rights abuses

Past experiences are lessons that motivate Maisky today. As recently as last year, he co-coordinated high profile musical events as a means to draw attention to human rights abuses in Russia.

It’s a story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I didn't find it surprising when Maisky said that, 15 years ago, there was a movie made in Europe about his life.

“They're talking about doing something again next year in connection with my 65th birthday,” he adds. “In reality I'm only 39. I've found a convenient way of staying young. I calculate my age from the day I arrived in the West and started my new life. The 7th of November, 1972 was my second birthday.”

Time is precious to Maisky who plays the cello as though, at any moment, it might be snatched away again. He lives each note as though it could be his last. 

“I feel that if you want to reach people's hearts, you have to open your own heart. It has to come from your heart,” Maisky says. “It's not enough to come from your instrument, your hands, or your mind. It has to originate from your heart. Whatever you do in life. Whether it's playing the cello, writing for a newspaper, cooking in a restaurant, or whatever, if you do it with love, that's what makes the difference in the end.”

Related links:

Moscow Soloists perform at Roy Thomson Hall

Denise Djokic plays Bach's Cello Suite No. 1

Hot this week: Mischa Maisky, Layla Claire and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore

Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Classics celebrate 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth with 18-disc Edition


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Mischa Maisky plays Toronto for first time in over 30 years

Cellist Mischa Maisky hasn't played in Toronto since 1978. “I was in Montreal last year, but this is…


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Augmented Sixth
#1 posted by
Augmented Sixth
on Apr 30, 2012

What a moving story. I always admired his playing without knowing anything about his background.

Michael Morreale
#2 posted by
Michael Morreale
on May 01, 2012

Maisky's recording of Bach's Cello Suites accompanied me through every single late-night essay session during my undergrad. They are treasures.

Wish I could be in Toronto on Thursday!

Francesca Swann
#3 posted by
Francesca Swann
on May 02, 2012

Hi Michael. Thought you'd be interested. When I spoke to Maisky the other day he said:

 "I think calling Bach a baroque composer is an insult to Bach. Because he was much, much more than that. Listen to the 25th Variation of the Goldberg Variations. If you call that baroque music then I can be called a Japanese emperor! When people ask me if I play modern music, I always say 'of course. I play Bach.' It sounds as modern today as it was 300 years ago or will be 300 years from now."

I looked into flights to Toronto for the concert, but couldn't swing it this time!

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