Yuri Bashmet is renowned as the master of the viola. He has lead and composed viola recitals across the globe while raising the profile of the instrument and breaking barriers in the process. The 50-year-old was the first musician to perform viola solo recitals at classical music citadels such as New York's Carnegie Hall, Milan's La Scala and the Barbican in London.
Rocker to classical musician
Raised in a music-loving household, Bashmet's first encounter with classical music was by practising the violin as a child. However, his first musical passion was rock music. Forming a band with his friends, Bashmet spent the evenings playing rock 'n' roll inspired by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Chicago. When entering a classical musical school in Lviv in his early 20s, he described ditching the mentally exerting violin for the less taxing viola as a way to afford him more time to rock out after class. "I was really a fan of the guitar," he says. "My elder friend told me that you can play viola because I don't have to spend too much time to practise and I can be with my guitar as much as I like. Looking back, it was the right choice."
The human instrument
A member of the strings family - which includes the cello, the bass and the violin itself - the viola (slightly larger than the violin) is known for achieving a deep and textured sound. "It is another world, because the viola sounds much closer to the human voice than the violin," says Bashmet. "The focus of the viola is to speak. It speaks about life and death and all the things that make us human." Bashmet describes how after centuries of composers focused on the violin, the viola underwent a renaissance in the 20th century. "I love Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto but they are not written for my instrument," he says. "But in the 20th century, there has been a restoration of the viola and a lot of great composers began writing pieces specifically for the viola."
Taking the lead
This partly explains why in 1980, Bashmet started conducting before going on to compose his own works. He says the move allowed him to express and channel the love he has for other genres into the instrument. Coming to Abu Dhabi with the Moscow Soloist Chamber Orchestra, Bashmet says he pushes musicians to focus on performances that are genuine rather than technically correct. "The important thing for me with the music is improvisation," he says. "Now, that doesn't mean playing new notes, but to find new details within to make this music more true and expressive."
The Abu Dhabi programme
At his debut UAE performance, Bashmet will focus on established works by the likes of Mozart, Paganini and Vivaldi, plus pieces by the Russian masters Dmitry Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky. Bashmet cryptically promises a few surprises, too. "We will start with classical pieces but do it in an interesting way," he says. "For example, when you hear the String Serenade by Mozart, you will hear some very special things which are unusual for Russian orchestras."
• Yuri Bashmet and The Moscow Soloist Chamber Orchestra will perform on Wednesday at the Emirates Palace Auditorium, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. Tickets from Dh250. Doors open at 7pm, show starts at 8pm. For more details go to www.timeouttickets.com