Legendary Leopolitans No. 8: The borderland virtuoso of the viola

  • Legendary Leopolitans  No. 8: The borderland virtuoso of the viola
  • Legendary Leopolitans  No. 8: The borderland virtuoso of the viola
  • Legendary Leopolitans  No. 8: The borderland virtuoso of the viola
Issue 28, October 2010.

Adopted Lviv native Yuri Bashmet is one of the most respected international violists in the world today. Like so many talented instrumentalists of his generation, he has also branched and founded an orchestra which he conducts. He has never abandoned the viola, managing to split his time in even portions between soloist and conductor, often appearing in both roles in the same concert. He has performed with the world’s leading orchestras, including those in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other locales.

A giant of modern classical music
Bashmet has also collaborated as soloist and conductor with some of the most celebrated string players of his time, including Rostropovich, Stern, Kremer, Mutter, and Mintz, as well as with keyboard legends like Richter and Argerich. For all his talent, Bashmet has been surrounded by controversy in the latter half of his career, owing to last-minute cancellations and sudden changes in concert programmes. He remains arguably the leading violist of his time and a powerful champion of contemporary music: indeed, a spate of major composers wrote works for him including Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Poul Ruders, John Taverner, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Bashmet has made numerous recordings for a variety of mostly major labels, including Melodiya, DG, EMI, RCA, Sony, Onyx, and Toccata Classics. In 2009 Yuri Bashmet was awarded one of the world’s most important musical awards - a Grammy – and was also nominated in 2010.

Learning in Lviv
Born in Rostov-on-Don in 1953, Bashmet grew up in Lviv where in 1958 his father moved the family after receiving a job offer in the picturesque Soviet-era city. Bashmet’s family received an apartment on Liszt Street which was located close to the city’s Philharmonic Society Theatre, close to Lviv Conservatory. Soon Bashmet’s mother started working at the educational department of the conservatory. She soon turned the family home into a favourite spot for students at the conservatory, exposing the young Yuri to a crash course in the culture of classical music. He soon began learning the guitar and, following his mother’s advice, took up viola studies – being forced to begin with the viola as there was no space in his preferred violin classes. The young Yuri prospered as a violist but longed to return to his beloved guitar and the Beatles music which he adored.
Luckily a fellow conservatory student who often visited the Bashmet family home recognised his talent early on and advised him to accept the offer to join viola class. This was an inauspicious beginning to a glittering musical career – at the time the viola was seen as ‘the poor man’s violin’ and was not widely respected. Once he became famous Bashmet would always say in interviews that the viola is actually the central instrument of the string section, with both violin and cello occupying subordinate positions. However, when Yuri first started attending music school no one expected any great triumph; on the contrary, his parents were simply looking for an engaging hobby for their precocious but wayward son. Looking at the playground outside his family home, young Yuri would sometimes cry at not being allowed to join the other kids his age in the daily frolics.  Mrs. Bashmet would allow the little scamp to have regular breaks during his practice and did everything to prevent Yuri’s music lessons from becoming an unwanted chore. 

Inspired by Menuhin
When Yuri was 10 years old he attended a concert of world famous violin player Yehudi Menuhin, a man whose music inspired Yuri to ever greater effort in his studies. In 1971 Bashmet graduated from Lviv’s special music school and decided to continue his musical education at Moscow Conservatory, where he studied till1976. In 1972 Bashmet had purchased a 1758 viola made by Paolo Testore, which he uses for his performances to this day. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Bashmet developed a career as a solo performer and began touring internationally with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He has since performed in leading concert halls the world over and was the first violist to perform a solo recital in New York’s Carnegie Hall and Milan’s La Scala. Bashmet’s artistry has won recognition in various awards and earned him regalia in Russia and abroad. As the world’s leading viola player for the past 25 years, Yuri Bashmet has lived life within the constraints of a punishing tour schedule which means that he gets to spend very little time with his family in Moscow, but the musician says that he is always particularly happy when he gets the chance to perform in Lviv. Bashmet’s father, who is over 80 years old, still lives in the celebrated violist’s adopted hometown Lviv, as do a great many friends and former classmates from both his secondary and music schools, making each Lviv concert a particularly emotional homecoming.