Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My family moved from Jerusalem to South Africa when I was young and I grew up in a provincial town. I had very little exposure to live performances and was very naïve about the world in general, but as a teenager I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors who gave generously of their time. My greatest influence was perhaps my grandmother. She taught me that beauty is truth, truth beauty. She introduced me to Schubert, Mozart, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Hölderlin and Rilke. I fondly remember the scratches on her LP record collection.
My mother was my first piano teacher. I was an unruly, hyperactive child and in my first lesson she forbade me to play while standing on the piano chair. It could only improve from there. As a teenager and young adult, I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors in South Africa, Germany, Switzerland and France: Mario Nell, Heinrich van der Mescht, Joseph Stanford, Phillip Moll, Philippe Entremont and Alfred Brendel.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Strangely, the performances of which I am proudest are the ones given under the most difficult conditions, rather than the ones where everything is optimal. For example, the Wigmore Hall has an acoustic that inspires and coaxes one into the Temple of Art. Such moments of immersion are wonderful, but it gives me even more joy to perform in more exotic and unusual places. For example, I once had the opportunity to perform at a school in the Bvumba Mountains of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands. The piano, an ancient Blüthner from Leipzig, was in a terrible condition and the ivory had been stripped of the keys, leaving only bare wood. However, a teacher had spent days painstakingly fashioning replacement keys from the plastic of old ice-cream containers and gluing them only the piano’s keyboard. What an honour it was for me to play on that instrument. This kind of performance sticks (excuse the pun) in my mind: memorable concerts in Ethiopia, Morocco and the Australian outback, where a cattle farmer had built his own rural theatre; or in Guadalajara, Mexico, where I performed with the soprano Laetitia Grimaldi in pitch black darkness due to an electricity outage.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
The world is full of beauty and there is always painfully beautiful music and art to discover. Michael Ondaatje writes, “every night I cut out my heart, but in the morning it was full again”. Even though I find nourishment in a wide spectrum of music, as a performer I am drawn to the late Classicists and early Romantics in particular. Why? I’m not really sure. Perhaps it is their almost mystical elevation of nature, their flirtations with the night and with death and their closeness to literature. I suppose I am sentimental. I’m reminded of a well-known Victor Hugo quote: “la mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste” (melancholy is the joy of being sad). Something is ineffable about this feeling, but there is a wonderful unnamed poem by Mandelstam that can explain it better than I:
A hush that evening in the organ forest.
Then singing for us: Schubert, cradle songs,
the noise of the mill, and the voice of a storm
where the music had blue eyes and was drunk and laughing.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I can think of two very different concert venues which were unforgettable experiences for me as a pianist. The first is the UKARIA Cultural Centre, in Australia’s Adelaide Hills. The concert stage is completely surrounded by glass and while playing, one can see far over the beautiful hills and valleys of Southern Australia. I have never felt more close to nature, the essence of art, while performing. The other venue is the famous Sängersaal of the Wartburg Castle in Germany. Steeped in history, the legendary castle was the setting of the medieval minstrel contests on which Richard Wagner based his music drama, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The historic concert hall is covered in frescos depicting scenes from the minstrel contests, painted by Moritz von Schwind, a personal friend of Franz Schubert. The coming together of all these great artists and legends and the beauty of the Wartburg Castle is almost too much for the senses to handle. Goethe, who also lived in the Wartburg Castle, put it this way in Faust: “O weh! errege nicht mein Sehnen”. (Oh woe! Do not excite my yearning.)
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
This is a question I have grappled with for a long time. Harold Bloom, the recently deceased doyen of literary criticism, deals with the definition of artistic success in his book ‘The Anxiety of Influence’. Simply put, each creative artist is influenced by those before. The knowledge of artistic greatness achieved in the past is not always inspiring; it can be downright scary, like something rich and strange. After confronting these problems, an artist has to find his own way to contribute positively to the canon. This is no different for me as a pianist. We are carried on the shoulders of our ancestors.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The word “art” in its early medieval form meant “human workmanship” as opposed to nature. Art’s contrast with nature (the artificial versus the natural) is something that fascinates me. As an interpreter of music, perhaps the greatest challenge is the search for the “natural” in art: honesty and truth above artifice. It is a life-long search for me…probably not only for me. I’m quoting yet again, this time from Oscar Wilde’s ‘De Profundis’:
Still, I am conscious now that behind all this beauty, satisfying though it may be, there is some spirit hidden of which the painted forms and shapes are but modes of manifestation, and it is with this spirit that I desire to become in harmony. I have grown tired of the articulate utterances of men and things. The Mystical in Art, the Mystical in Life, the Mystical in Nature, this is what I am looking for. It is absolutely necessary for me to find it somewhere.
As performers mostly of the works of dead composers, we are in a constant battle between temporality and timelessness. Music in a live performance exists in vibrations for a fleeting moment and then is gone. The goal is to make these moments speak a Truth.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The world is full of endless wonder. Lying on my back in the Kalahari desert, walking in the fields around the tombs of Vincent and Theo van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, watching the fox’s wedding sequence in Kurosawa’s film Dreams, standing in front of the cathedral of Siena or Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, listening to Haydn’s “Kaiser” quartet. Somehow, happiness is not an end in itself to me; the joy is in the wandering, the gratitude, the longing.
What is your present state of mind?
I’d love to say that I feel pensive and lucid, but in actual fact I think I’ve been rambling on and on. When I read this again I’ll probably find it unbearably kitschy.
What is your most treasured possession?
Perhaps many classical musicians appreciate things that are of a certain age, almost as do archaeologists. The things that I hold dear all somehow remind me of the noise of time, or as Dylan Thomas calls it, things that “tell a weather’s wind how time has ticked a heaven round the stars”. I inherited a leather-bound 1889 edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas which belonged to my great-great uncle. He died at the age of 17 and when I play from his score I feel as though he is quietly checking my fingering.
I have a small fossil collection and feel a special connection to a beautiful trilobite from the Palaeozoic Era. She is preserved as though in dance: motionless for the last 250 million years and yet still quivering with latent movement.
Ammiel Bushakevitz performs regularly at notable venues across Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Australia. He has appeared at the festivals of Salzburg, Bayreuth and Lucerne, the Festival Pontino di Latina in Rome, the Pablo Casals Festival in Barcelona, the Jerusalem Schubertiade, the Beijing Music Festival in China, the Festival Musica Classica de Montréal in Canada, the Festival Pitic in Mexico and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, France. He has been broadcast on national television and radio in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the USA. His discography includes seven albums on labels such BIS (Sweden), Hänssler Classics (Germany), SOLFA (Spain) and Gramola (Austria).