Playing it to the Maxim

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Published: 28th April, 2014

Classic Melbourne welcomed the news that Maxim Rysanov, international violist and conductor, was returning to Australia in June. As well as our review, we vividly recall an interview given on his last visit to Melbourne … The year was 2011 and the well-travelled violist was up for an interview not 24 hours after his arrival in Australia for the Melbourne Festival and after a day of rehearsals with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. Some black T-shirts neatly draped over a chair and a nearly-empty pot of tea in his hotel apartment suggested this star performer was already quite settled in.

Of course, Ukrainian-born Rysanov is no stranger to travel. His website documents a plethora of engagements in the UK and throughout Europe, and extending to China. He works regularly with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, and has an evident rapport with that ensemble. “”It’s historically very interesting. From a little tiny boy I had some LPs of this orchestra, and I think they are a fantastic band”,” Rysanov said. “”[Usually] as a conductor you are supposed to have the whole work prepared, there’’s one rehearsal and then the concert … but this orchestra is learning and developing from one rehearsal to the next. At the end the result is amazing.””

I asked him what set this life of music and travel in motion. “”I moved to London when I was 18 because I wanted to experience different things, a different culture. At the time there was no Soviet Union any more but still the tradition was kept pretty Soviet, especially in classical performance.

“I wanted to learn more about the freshness of baroque performance, the lightness of classical”, Rysanov said. A six-year full scholarship to study at the Guildhall enabled him to study viola and then he stayed on to study conducting. “

“You can only learn conducting by actually doing it””,  he said. ““I had to organise my own orchestra … which helped me to develop my communication skills, because I had to run around college and ask every single person to play in the orchestra! “What I do now is have conducting gigs, and love it, with certain ensembles, but the viola is always number one for everything in my life.

““It’’s unusual to be able to direct a chamber orchestra of this quality and be accompanied by them”,” Rysanov reflected. ““And as a string player, I can explain things technically better than with, say, a brass band!”

“A few viola players have become conductors”, he said. “”Sitting in the middle you have the bass and the melody all around you. It develops the ability to hear things better, maybe. And viola players in rehearsals are most active, they talk the most … – there could be another viola joke here,”” he laughed.

Rysanov’’s mother, a violinist, was the guiding force behind the musical career that would lead him away from their small place in the Ukraine. She suggested the viola, which he later realised was suited to his big hands and broad shoulders.

” I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a soloist”. “We [violists] don’t have the golden repertoire that violinists have: basically Romantic concertos that audience – or actually, promoters – require. But I managed to escape that by arranging stuff.

““I haven’t quite got there yet, but arranging the Mozart clarinet concerto is my dream”.” Recent challenges included Benjamin Usupov’’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto written for another Maxim, the violinist Vengerov. “In the middle you have to pick up the electric viola and play like a rock star, which I didn’t do, I only amplified myself,” Rysanov smiled. “Vengerov went one further and danced with a partner but I saw that on YouTube, and I thought, I’m not going to make myself look like that!””

Rysanov likes a balance of classical and contemporary in concerts, and waxed lyrical about the music of Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova. Typically (as I realised by the end of this interview) Rysanov plays down his own achievements as he applauds colleagues such as the pianist Jacob Katsnelson whom Rysanov refers to as ““ridiculously talented””.

Rysanov is still based in London, but whenever he has time off he heads for the Ukraine, to visit family. “”My grandfather is 93 and he still works out and reads love novels””, he laughs. “”He had wanted to play violin but had to go to war, so made my mum study violin. My father’’s side is also musical, he played clarinet and my grandparents were singers”.

It seems Maxim Rysanov was destined to be a musician and, having heard his Melbourne Festival performance I, like his many fans around the world, – can only be glad for that.

Read our review of the performance on June 17 at the Melbourne Recital Centre at