The world’s leading violist talks rockstar aspirations, “divorce” from his own group and bouncing back.

You turned 60 this year, and it’s also the 21st birthday of your ensemble the Moscow Soloists. Are those anniversaries meaningful? Has your outlook changed?

Everything changes in life. When I started playing music I lived in a different country. It was the Soviet Union and now it’s Russia – but for me it was always just home. What’s changed me most are the people I’ve met. I’m very proud and honoured to have played with amazing people like Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gidon Kremer, Anne- Sophie Mutter and Isaac Stern – not to mention my close friend Valery Gergiev. The life of a musician is all about these meetings.

Did they give you any advice you’ve taken to heart throughout your career?

I remember once I was very upset about a review for one of my concerts, and Rostropovich said, “You know, what these critics say doesn’t matter, Yuri. Just be thankful they spelled your name right!”

And in turn you’re now involved in passing on your skills to younger musicians.

Yes, this is very important. In the Soviet Union we used to have the best system of musical education in the world. Unfortunately, for the past decade this system has been broken and now we are trying to revive it. I run two musical academies for young people, and I also co-founded a Russian children’s symphony orchestra, which holds auditions in very, very small towns – not just in Moscow. There are so many talented children in places like Ekaterinburg, Khabarovsk, Siberia, the Russian Far East. We’re trying to find talented musical children from around the country and connect them with good teachers so they can start their career. If you look through the history of the 20th century, Isaac Stern was born in Ukraine, Richter, Oistrakh, all these great names. We also have the younger generation like Kissin and Berezovsky – and now we must try to provide a future for the children of today.

So how do you make it happen?

When I was growing up it was very simple. All the good children were immediately noticed and brought to Moscow. Take the great violinist Viktor Tretyakov, from Krasnoyarsk; his family was practically penniless. At the age of nine he came to Moscow for an audition; the teacher was impressed and sent a letter to the administration. He and his mother were invited to Moscow, given free accommodation and everything they needed for a normal life. Ten years later, Tretyakov wins the Tchaikovsky Competition. So what we need is to revive this kind of holistic support for talented children.

Is this what happened to you?

Not exactly… did you know I actually wanted to be a rock musician? I started to play violin in school but as a teenager it was the time of The Beatles and I played guitar with a successful group in my hometown of Rostov-on-Don. I switched to viola because someone told me you didn’t need to practice as much, and I wanted time to play the guitar. Somehow I was invited to a music competition – it was actually called the Vladimir Lenin Music Competition because it was Lenin’s 100th birthday. I was the only violist there among the violinists, and I won it! After that there was no question of what I was supposed to do: go to Moscow. I didn’t like playing in an orchestra so I thought, “Ok, I’ll try to be a soloist.” And people seemed to like my performances. So to be honest, I didn’t do anything special: I just got an invitation and I showed up. If you’d told me back then I would be the first solo violist to play Carnegie Hall I wouldn’t have believed you!

How did the Moscow Soloists emerge from the turmoil of Russia in the ’90s?

It was a very difficult time in our history: there were problems with food, with everything. Of course these musicians longed for a normal family life in a safe country. When we were on tour in France we signed a contract for five years to stay and perform in Montpellier. I was reluctant to leave Russia because it’s my home, and because I think it’s important for artists to feel the cultural influences of their homeland. And eventually I decided I couldn’t stay – that I don’t want to be a French musician. Everyone was very upset about this at the time, and most of the musicians remained in France. It was like a divorce. But I came back to Moscow and Richter’s wife convinced me to start again, this time employing talented graduates from the Moscow Conservatorium. It took just two concerts with this new, young ensemble for me to understand that this would be my future.

What makes a good chamber orchestra?

With a chamber orchestra it is all about connection, about feeling close to each other on stage, almost like you’re improvising together. We play the Tchaikovsky Serenade quite often because it’s very popular and we are always asked to perform it. Because I am in a close musical relationship with everybody in my group, and they know my style, we can do everything in the moment. This means that Tchaikovsky is different every time, because we want to do something new and for our souls to be free with the music.

Do you think Russian players understand Russian music better?

I think the Russian tradition of music is now a global phenomenon. Think of all the Russian musicians, like Jascha Heifetz, who ended up teaching in America. Conservatoriums around the world are full of Russians. But it’s true that Russian people are very emotional and very open in their music; you just need to hear a Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky symphony to understand that. On the other hand, certain fields, such as historical performance, are much more developed in Western Europe than in Russia.

What are your impressions of Australia?

I like the country very much but, as I said, the people are the most important thing. Australian audiences are very open and very close to the music in their hearts. If they like something, they show it. They’re not polite and standoffish: if they like you, you immediately feel this. I like this honesty.

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists perform at the Sydney Opera House on May 18 and at QPAC on May 19-20.