Alexander Vassilievich Ivashkin was the most original cello soloist of his generation, a passionate advocate of new music, a brave and brilliant scholar, and the best human being I ever knew. He was my beloved teacher and musical father.
In the years since I studied with him at the University of Canterbury in the late 1990s, I have often had cause to wonder how it even happened that this mercurial Russian genius and his equally astounding wife, Natalia Pavlutskaya, ended up as the cello teachers at a university in a provincial city in an archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean. I suppose we had the tyrannical politics of the Cold War to thank for the generation of New Zealand cellists that he taught between 1990 and 1999.
While most other teachers in the music department had four or five students, the Ivashkins always had a class of around twenty, many of whom went on to high-profile careers. The “Ivashkin diaspora” includes ex-Australian String Quartet cellist Rachel Johnston, Enso Quartet cellist Richard Belcher, New Zealand Trio cellist Ashley Brown, contemporary music specialist Rebecca Turner, international soloist Yoosha Kim, and Berliner Staatskapelle cellist Moky Gibson-Lane. Many more became orchestral players, schoolteachers, and private studio instructors, carrying on the Ivashkin/Pavlutskaya traditions in New Zealand and abroad. And that was just the New Zealanders. The Ivashkins also taught the rising star Stjepan Hauser, the performance artist Laura Moody, and many others.
Although Alexander Vassilievich might have been expected to find the slowness of Christchurch life frustrating, he claimed to adore it. “I want to die in Christchurch,” he once proclaimed.
“But Alexander Vassilievich,” I said, snottily, “how could you tell?”
“Little witch,” was his affectionate reply.
Even if I frequently annoyed him, I think Alexander Vassilievich was amused by my brattiness. On the occasion of our first lesson, I was determined to impress him with my playing, and I showed off terribly. I can’t remember what I played, probably the Saint-Saëns Concerto.
“Beautiful!” he exclaimed.
I preened. I had been told all my life how precocious and talented I was, so I assumed I was pretty hot stuff.
“Beautiful, like Botticelli angel,” he continued. “Unfortunately, you are not wery good cellist.”
Crash! My ego shattered into tiny fragments.
“You have good talent,” he added. He paused, and I brightened. Then came the sting in the tail: “But you do everything wrong. Do not worry. My wife will fix you.”
This was what he and Natalia Mikhailovna did: demolish your conceit, then chop up your playing and put it back together again, piece by piece, until you could begin to approach their impossibly high standards. This was accompanied by many exasperated shouts of “No!” and “Terrible!” and “You play like a peeg!” Occasionally the screaming got so loud (“Vhat to do, really? I tear out my hair!”) that the violin teacher Jan Tawroszewicz, whose office shared a wall with the Ivashkins’, bellowed back “Excellent! Wonderful!”
Alexander Vassilievich wouldn’t hesitate to bawl you out in front of the whole class, either. The worst possible insult was to say that your playing had been “musical.” By this, he meant full of artificial sentiment without the technical proficiency to back it up. “Mirandochka,” he once lamented, “I have loved you as a daughter, or probably granddaughter. But you are bloody lazy!” But another time, when a fellow student commented that my vibrato was perhaps “a bit too Russian” for Fauré’s Elégie, he leapt to my defence. “Mirandochka is Russian,” he said, reprovingly. This was the highest praise.
Natalia Mikhailovna spent at least two hours a week with every member of their class, obsessively fixing our bow-holds, refusing to accept anything less than perfection. “Now go,” she said at the end of every lesson, “and repeat thousands thousands times.” We did, often letting ourselves into the building at two in the morning for some late-night scales and Coca-Cola-fuelled giggling sessions. Once every few weeks, undergraduates would be sent to Alexander Vassilievich to work on our Russian repertoire. (The postgraduates worked with him full-time.)
Alexander Vassilievich’s teaching was not so technically-minded as Natalia Mikhailovna’s, but full of poetry and imagery. “This section is like a wild outpouring of crazy bells,” he said of the frantic F-sharp minor section at the end of the first movement in the Prokofiev Sonata. Of the opening theme of the third movement, he said “Consider those Pointillist paintings of boats on lakes. You must imagine that the cello’s theme is sailing.” Opening the piano score, he pointed to the scattered staccato notes in the left-hand part. “Look! Pointillism!”
After one long lesson, he said “The Prokofiev is a very good piece for you.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Prokofiev liked trains,” he continued. “Trains, and fast cars, and chess. And many different contrasting colours. He had a pair of yellow shoes. Can you imagine?”
I did not think this was particularly odd. Alexander Vassilievich had to explain that after Prokofiev’s return to Russia after many years abroad, his ostentatious displays of fashionable Western clothing had been coolly received by his colleagues and neighbours, some of whom didn’t have any nice clothes, or even enough to eat. This was one of the first discussions we had about life in Soviet Russia.
“Prokofiev was contrary,” he told me. “He was a sarcastic man. This is why this is a good piece for you. You are a wery sarcastic girl, Mirandochka.”
“No, I’m not,” I protested. “I’m a sweetie pie. Everybody thinks so.”
“No,” he said, “I know you. You like to make a lot of wery mean jokes. About my accent.”
This was not something I could deny.
Alexander Vassilievich firmly believed, as I do today, in the importance of a literary education. “For a young woman named after a heroine of Shakespeare,” he admonished me, “you are shockingly uneducated. A truly well-read person should know Shakespeare. The University of Canterbury has a beautiful library full of beautiful books, and you have read none of them.”
I went to the library and checked out The Taming of the Shrew. This was not exactly what Alexander Vassilievich had had in mind, although he observed that I had a great deal in common with the unpleasant Katharina.
Alexander Vassilievich himself was incredibly well-read in several languages. I still don’t really know how he found time to accomplish so much in only 65 years. He wrote ten books, made countless recordings, published dozens of articles, and played concerts in top venues all over the world. He had somehow managed to acquire no fewer than three doctorates. He played the piano, conducted, and seemed to be able to pick any instrument and play it. He had read everything, knew everything, and knew everyone.
He spoke beautiful, poetic English, but he had trouble with idioms, especially when they were uttered with the puzzling vowels and diphthongs of the New Zealand accent. “Mirandochka! Remember that you are talking to a bloody foreigner here. What the hell are you saying?”
Once he asked our class, “What is this cloud nine?” He had seen the expression in a newspaper, but didn’t understand it.
Rachel Johnston attempted to explain the meaning.
“Oh,” said Alexander Vassilievich, “wery strange. In Russia, it is cloud eleven.”
Another time, he was confused when he heard the expression “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on.”
“But it is not screwed on,” he observed, perturbed.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure Alexander Vassilievich drove the University of Canterbury authorities crazy with his almost total disregard for rules. When the head of the music department informed him he had broken some institutional taboo, he cut the man off with a dismissive wave of his elegant hand. “I am from the Soviet Union,” he said airily. “I do not care.” He had a lifelong detestation of authority and petty bureaucrats, having known enough of them in Russia. Like most Russian artists of his generation, he’d had a few run-ins with the authorities. He once told me that a KGB officer had asked him to spy on some of his friends in case they made any anti-government remarks. “But I told them I couldn’t do it,” he recalled. “I said, ‘It is not my nature.’ After that, I knew that they bugged my apartment and my telephone, but what could I do?”
Another time, Alexander Vassilievich’s father, a biologist, went on a trip to the West. He asked if he’d like him to bring back any musical scores. Alexander Vassilievich requested some pieces by Webern, whose music was decidedly non grata with the Soviet cultural authorities. “If his bag had been searched,” he later admitted, “he could have got into some quite serious trouble. Both of us could. Webern had been dead for twenty years, and was not exactly a new composer any more, but they thought he was too dangerous for us to listen to. It’s unbelievable, really.”
In spite of his cultivation and urbane sophistication, Alexander Vassilievich adored some rather lowbrow aspects of Western popular culture, not having come across much of it in Russia. He could watch vast amounts of American television, and the set was usually blaring when I visited his Christchurch home. His favourite film was Splash, starring Daryl Hannah as a ditzy mermaid, and he loved nothing more than sitting down to eat a Magnum ice cream bar in front of Baywatch. “Do you know this wonderful programme?” he excitedly asked his students. “It is about beautiful women in red bathing suits! And they run on the beach! Can you imagine?”
Even as we smiled at Alexander Vassilievich’s eccentricities, we revered his dazzling cello playing. I have never seen a cellist with a more natural setup at the instrument, or more perfect efficiency of movement. Technical difficulties simply did not exist for him. He also had an astonishingly good memory, and could learn pages and pages of the most densely complicated new music in a matter of days, or even hours. His trademark sound was hyper-expressive and quite unlike anyone else’s. The vibrato was wide and fast, and often delayed for a few moments after the start of a note. This was perfect for the music of his beloved Russian composers: Shostakovich and Prokofiev, of course, and his contemporaries Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov, and Alfred Schnittke, whom he called the “Trinity.”
Alexander Vassilievich venerated Schnittke above any other composer. One of the critics of his Schnittke biography complained that he had attributed to the composer a “Christ-like irreproachability,” but Alexander Vassilievich honestly believed that Schnittke could do no wrong. And his performances of Schnittke’s music were cathartic experiences. Several times, I saw audience members reduced to speechless, streaming tears by his playing of Schnittke’s Cello Sonata No. 1. Together with Irina Schnittke at the piano, he could convey an atmosphere of utter sadness and desolation, of a world without hope. On the stage, he looked like a suffering saint, his wide pale eyes full of pain, his glasses sliding down his nose. I was so, so proud that this marvellous, humane, brilliant man was my teacher.
Since New Zealand was so far from Russia and Europe, I now realize that we were incredibly lucky to have Alexander Vassilievich and Natalia Mikhailovna for so long. It was no great surprise, therefore, when they announced in 1999 that they were leaving for a new position at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Rachel Johnston and I elected to move to London with them, at considerable difficulty to ourselves and our families. After we all arrived, our teacher-student relationship with the Ivashkins changed. Perhaps recognizing that London was a very big place for two unstreetwise New Zealanders barely out of adolescence, Alexander Vassilievich and Natalia Mikhailovna treated us even more as adopted daughters, inviting us frequently to their chic townhouse in Blackheath for cups of unbearably strong tea and, on occasion, vodka. Alexander Vassilievich could drink huge quantities of Absolut, which he loved even though it was not actually Russian, and encouraged others to do the same. “Drink wodka before going to bed,” he advised, “and you will wake up early, with many good ideas.”
Alexander Vassilievich was a tireless advocate for his students, and I really think that I wouldn’t have been able to build my career half so well without his help. He wrote hundreds of letters of recommendation and selflessly spent hours of his time on the phone with university and orchestra hiring committees; he also put high-profile opportunities in their path. The two career achievements of which I am proudest came from him. One was playing alongside him, Natalia Mikhailovna, and Rachel Johnston on the world première recording of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Quaternion for four cellos. The other was performing a five-cello arrangement of the slow movement from Prokofiev’s Concertino op. 132 with him, Rachel, Laura Moody and Yoosha Kim at the ceremony for Mstislav Rostropovich’s honorary doctorate from Goldsmiths.
It was easy to love Alexander Vassilievich. His endearing grin, snaggle-toothed but luminous, inspired you with confidence, and his laugh was uproarious. He and Natalia Mikhailovna were an inseparable, adoring couple, a “marriage of true minds” if ever one existed. He was a genuine lover of humanity, a benevolent force for kindness. This wasn’t to say that he adored everyone: he had harsh opinions about Tikhon Khrennikov and Dmitri Kabalevsky for their self-serving behaviour during Stalin’s Terror. He despised dishonesty, pretension, political intrigue, racial prejudice and lechery. He was heard more than once to complain impatiently that university administrators were “profoundly stupid.” But he was ardently loyal to his wide circle of Russian expatriate friends, and took a paternal interest in his students long after we had left him. When my daughter was born, he made a fond remark about having a granddaughter.
With his characteristic modesty and consideration for others, he tried to protect his loved ones from news of his final illness. When I heard a rumour that he hadn’t been well, I wrote to him at once. He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with him, but thanked me for my good wishes. It was mere weeks from his death. Until the last, many people didn’t even know that he’d been ill.
His death on January 31 was a shock. I heard the horrible news at one o’clock the following morning, and was booked to teach a masterclass at nine. Somehow, with the aid of a sleeping pill, I got through that terrible night. In the morning, I was so nauseated with grief that I thought perhaps I would have to cancel the class. But then a voice in my head said “That is not how Alexander Vassilievich Ivashkin would behave. Alexander Vassilievich would go anyway, no matter how much he was suffering, and do his absolute best.”
Many people are overcome with grief at the loss of this good and generous man. But his legacy lives on, both in his prolific body of work and in our memories. As Rachel Johnston said to me last night, “It’s not a question of where he is now, but where he isn’t. He’s not at the end of the phone, he’s not waiting in London for our next visit, but whatever your current location in the Planck space of belief you know he’s in your head and heart forever… I tend to agree that he’s probably not sitting on a park bench on a cloud with Alfred, Slava and John planning celestial music festivals, but energy is constant in this universe and the only thing we can do with it during our embodied lives is elevate it or degrade it, and I’m damn sure he lifted it out of the everyday bell curve.”
With this in mind, let us honour Alexander Vassilievich by living our lives the way he lived his. Let’s make music with his dynamic vitality, champion the composers of our time, torment our students with lots of hard études and laugh at their complaints. Let’s search for magic in every phrase. Let’s fearlessly speak the truth. No one can ever achieve Alexander Vassilievich’s greatness, but let’s try anyway.
“…and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun…”
© Miranda Wilson, 2014. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.