Obituary: Yvar Mikhashoff

Ronald Mackay (Yvar Mikhashoff), pianist and composer: born Albany, New York 8 March 1941; died Buffalo, New York 11 October 1993.

YVAR MIKHASHOFF lived, as they say, a full life. Friends he stayed with groaned under the weight of the telephone bills. Yvar was an International Figure, large in person and life-style, a focal point of new music. Appointed to the faculty of the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1973, he seemed constantly to be planning festivals all over the world, having new works written for him, and goodness knows when he practised the piano, which, after all, was meant to be his main thing. He was a composer too.

He once told me his grandfather was a Russian general, though I have no idea if it's true. He took his grandfather's name to replace the more prosaic Ronald Mackay which he was actually born with. He had been to scores of piano teachers, taking what he needed from each. He studied at two prestigious music schools (Eastman and Juilliard) and two universities (Houston and Texas, Austin) before studying composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger - a rather conservative choice for someone of his age. He accumulated repertoire as fast as he could read the music.

I may have given Mikhashoff his first London date when he took part in a programme devoted to the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, at the ICA in 1979. It is hard to imagine so modest a beginning, sharing a concert with other performers. Subsequently he learnt a whole recital programme of John White sonatas specially for me, and gave a lectures recital and master-class on Ives's Concord Sonata, of which he also made a warm, richly imaginative commercial recording.

But I couldn't cope with Mikhashoff's cornucopian musical character; and he went on to become Associate Director of Pierre Audi's Almeida Festival in Islington, where he gave marathon recitals (including his tango collection, which he as an ex-champion ballroom dancer commissioned) and devised thematic plots and subplots which ran through the festival's crowded schedule of concerts. When Audi left to direct the Netherlands Opera in 1990, Mikhashoff stayed as Concerts Director at the Almeida and continued to plan and give concerts until last July. He was in the final stages of planning concerts of new Spanish music for next spring when he died. His final solo recital in London was, believe it or not, called Diabolical Visions, and consisted of Russian music including some of his own transcriptions. The following night he took part in the first performance of Ashes of Soldiers, a Whitman setting of chamber dimensions by the Scottish composer David Horne.

Which gives some idea of Mikhashoff's range. He had a generous, open-minded receptiveness to all kinds of new work which is typical of a certain kind of American musician. And inevitably, he was particularly associated with American music of all kinds, not only experimental.

Being an unregenerate homosexual hedonist, Yvar Mikhashoff was the perfect pianist-hero (Mr Fred) of Sylvano Bussotti's opera Le Racine. But, so far as I know, he didn't play Stockhausen or Boulez. He liked music he could intuit and relax into. Since one knew how well he could play anything he had really lived with, one often wished he wouldn't spread himself so thin. Perhaps he was like that in life, too; but he was great company for an evening.

(Photograph omitted)