Pedalling to Berlin and back: Yvar Mikhashoff is the marathon man of the piano. He takes a break to talk to to Mark Pappenheim

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Yvar Mikhashoff had the perfect training for an American pianist - two years at Eastman, two years at Juilliard, and two years as a professional ballroom dancer. 'I was kind of tired of Juilliard,' he says of his sudden decision to quit the conservatoire for the dance hall. 'It was all just playing the next piece louder and faster than the last person. The idea was that you were going to be a great virtuoso and play only masterpieces. The thing was, all these composers were dead.' And the dead hand of the classics was almost enough to drive Mikhashoff from the concert platform for good.

For the young, Buffalo-born pianist had discovered new music, with the Khachaturian Concerto, at the age of 10 and had already amassed a large record collection of modern greats, from Bartok to Berg, before he was into his teens. The fact that, as a student at Eastman, he had also begun hanging out with real-life, flesh-and- blood composers - and even having pieces written for him - only made him the more suspicious of the mummified musical version of Chinese Whispers that passed for a living performing tradition at Juilliard.

He recalls a typical run-in he had about the proper way to play a Beethoven sonata. His teacher complained that when he played the piece, it sounded like Rachmaninov. ' 'What's wrong with that?' I asked. 'Well, it's supposed to sound like this . . .' And I thought, What's this 'supposed to'? We don't have any recordings, we can't pick up the phone and speak to Beethoven, I don't think we have any idea at all how those people played. How can we trust the rumours of 200 years? So, at that point, I became quite disillusioned with the idea of playing old music.'

It was the veteran Nadia Boulanger, with whom he later resumed his musical studies in Paris, who helped restore those illusions by confirming his distrust of the whole 'supposed to' school of playing. 'I once asked her for her advice on how to play Couperin correctly,' he recalls. 'She just looked at me and said, 'I'm old, Mikhashoff, but I'm not that old]' ' He has since preferred to perform the work of composers who can be consulted at the end of a phone.

His commitment to the new has resulted in an eclectic list of personal commissions stretching well into three figures. His International Tango Collection alone already numbers over 100 pieces by composers of all schools - from Copland and Stockhausen to Finnissy and Nancarrow - and is still growing. Having turned his back on the conveyor-belt classicism of the conservatoires, he has consistently struck out into the uncharted territories of contemporary music. But then, as Earl Wild, the American virtuoso, once said, 'I only play masterpieces - but you, Yvar, are out there to find the masterpieces for us to play.'

For such a musical pioneer, Buffalo makes an ideal base camp. Its university, New York State, where Mikhashoff now teaches, has a proud reputation for fostering new music and finding new audiences for it. Hindemith taught there, as did Morton Feldman, Lejaren Hiller and Lukas Foss. Since the 1950s, a generous bequest has enabled the university to host a visiting composer each year - and, as Mikhashoff says, 'we've always tried to avoid the standard luminaries' (Birtwistle was there as long ago as 1973). In 1983 he founded the North American New Music Festival. 'So, coming from Buffalo, I'm really from the only place I should be from. We've always had a certain openness: we're not hooked into the Elliott Carter / Brian Ferneyhough complexities - though we've done them; and we're not hooked into John Cage, though we've done days and days of Cage. But we love George Crumb - and Phil Glass did his first solo recital for us . . .'

It's that urge to encompass everything that led Mikhashoff into pioneering his current party piece - the solo piano marathon - back in 1984. He'd been invited to give a recital at the Symphony Space, a converted movie theatre in New York, and knew that he wanted to do an American retrospective. 'So I was going through the repertoire - and I just couldn't decide what to play. And then I thought, Well, why don't I just play it all?' The result was The Great American Piano Marathon - a non-stop chronological sequence of 70 works from 70 years lasting seven hours.

As Mikhashoff admits, it was just one of those mad ideas - and, when he first sat down to play it in public, he didn't even know he could go the distance. 'No one ever rehearses a marathon,' he reveals. 'But we all know those times when we've basically sat at the piano playing for six or seven hours in a kind of obsessive frame of mind. So we know we can do it.' What gets him through is precisely the spontaneity of the occasion - the rush of adrenaline from being on stage and the constant thrill of opening up each new score in turn and recognising an old favourite - 'so each piece is, you might say, a little buzz. When I first did it, I started at 3.00 and at 10.30 I was surprised it was over. But then, the next day, I woke up and I was creaky all over]'

Mikhashoff brought his Great American Piano Marathon to the Almeida Festival in 1985, and was promptly invited by Pierre Audi, the festival's founder, to became his associate director. Thereafter, his was the guiding spirit behind the Almeida's festival programming until its demise two years ago. But now the festival is back in a new form, as Almeida Opera, and Mikhashoff has devised a new marathon to mark his return as Concerts Director. Entitled Diary of an Imaginary Pianist 1892-1992, it's a musical review of 100 years of Anglo- German cross-influences.

'I'd thought of subtitling it The London-Berlin Express,' he explains, 'because I realised that the early greats of 20th-century English music - Elgar, Holst, Delius - all trained in Germany. Darmstadt, too, has been dominated for the past 10 years by English composers - James Dillon, Chris Dench, Roger Redgate and Brian Ferneyhough. So we've come full circle.' And to bring it up to date, the cycle will end with six premieres by living composers - two German, three English and one Dutch - 'because, you know,' he says, recalling his suggested subtitle, 'if you take the train to Berlin, you probably have to sleep through Holland.'

Understandably, Mikhashoff is not one to lend his voice to the persistent chorus of complaint from old Almeida aficionados that the new opera-based venture (in collaboration with ENO's Contemporary Opera Studio) is no replacement for the old concert-packed festival. 'The scale of it, of course, is much smaller,' he concedes, 'as far as the number of concerts goes. But there are two full operas and two chamber operas. Of course, the tremendous chunk of money that has gone into that second opera could have gone into concerts - my goodness, we could have done another 10 or 15 concerts with that, and then we would have a festival that looked more like the old one. But, you know, things change . . .'

And the new direction the festival has taken in fact reflects another passion of his own. For Mikhashoff is also an opera fan and for years has spent his summers working as an opera coach in Austria. More recently, he's also become obsessed with the revival of the operatic piano transcription. It's basically an extension of the do-it- all spirit that begat the marathons. 'I was just thinking about one of my favourite arias, 'Vissi d'arte', one day - and I thought, Now why can't I play that?' So he sat down at the piano and tried to make it work.

Transcribing opera is, he stresses, real physical work, hammering out solutions directly on the keys. 'The main thing is all that excitement created by sustained notes for the voice - you have to use other devices to recreate that on a piano.' Finding out what works and what doesn't is a constant source of surprise. His four- movement Butterfly Fantasy, for example, omits the work's best-known number, 'Un bel di' ('One Fine Day'). 'It's so simple,' he explains. 'There's that beautiful melody at the beginning, but there's almost no accompaniment, no rhythmic interest, no arpeggiation . . . I realised I couldn't do anything with it. Whereas the 'Humming Chorus', which you wouldn't have thought would work at all, I managed to figure out a way to do with pedalling and ways of changing the registers, and I made the 'Flower Duet' into a kind of fantastic Mendelssohnian scherzo. So you never know when you start a transcription what bits you'll use.'

Alongside such favourites as 'Caro nome' from Rigoletto and a version of Bellini's 'Casta Diva' done in the style of a Chopin Nocturne - 'the two composers knew each other well and the first Chopin Nocturnes were written at exactly the same time as Norma' - Mikhashoff's Opera Matinee includes unlikely oddities such as an Intermezzo culled from that most orchestrally imagined of operas, Debussy's Pelleas, and a waltz from Wozzeck rescued from the off-stage band in the inn-scene. And in a pioneering reversal of the piano transcription's old role - as a means for disseminating established successes in an age before television, radio or recordings - Mikhashoff will also be using the keyboard to offer foretastes of operas still to be performed. Thus, this year's Almeida audiences will be treated to pianistic previews of next year's two commissions, as yet uncompleted new operas by Kevin Volans and Julian Grant. Above all, perhaps, opera transcriptions allow him to indulge those secret hankerings after the grand manner which he surrendered when he walked out of Juilliard and took up with contemporary music. As he admits, 'My Butterfly I can play as extravagantly as I like - and with a rubato that would be grand larceny anywhere else]'

(Photograph omitted)