The program was in the community room of the North Greens Golf
Course. Istomin entertained a standing-room-only crowd with music
and stories of his journey to becoming an acclaimed world-class
Mikhail, or as his friends know him, "Misha," grew up in
the former Soviet Union and began taking piano lessons very early
on, but "my grandmother insisted that I learn to play her favorite
instrument, the cello," he said. When he did switch instruments, she
closely monitored his progress on a daily basis. Istomin chuckled
when he said, "I had to practice hard when she was around, because
she always reported my progress to my parents. And my grandmother
was around every day!"
The Soviet Union had a government-funded, two-tiered arts
education program: one for students with some talent who took music
lessons a few hours each week, and another for gifted kids. Istomin
fell into the latter category, and at age 7 he began an 11-year
total immersion in cello combined with regular school subjects. He
took lessons every day, all day. After graduation he rose to the
highest level of Soviet-era orchestras, performing with the most
In 1989, he was accorded one of the highest privileges a
Soviet-era performing artist could receive: permission to travel and
perform abroad. As a member of a string quartet, he first visited
Paris to perform and then departed to the United States. The string
quartet traveled extensively on the East Coast. While in Baltimore,
Istomin decided to defect to the U.S. and ask for political asylum.
He was then 24 years old and could not speak English.
Asked why he defected, he reflected on the question for a few
moments and then replied, "I had a feeling that this was a chance, a
chance to do what I wanted." He further explained that in the dying
days of the Soviet Union, life was stifling even for a musician of
"It was an emotionally difficult decision. Life stopped for me
the moment I asked for asylum, my old life, and then a completely
new life started. I knew nothing about the U.S. except that it
provided a chance to be free, to do what I wanted to do. It was
exhilarating and very scary," he explained. "Fortunately, I felt
very confident in my musicianship after traveling in America, so I
knew I could compete at the highest level for jobs."
So began a young immigrant's journey through the American
landscape and culture. He auditioned and was hired by the Richmond
(Virginia) Symphony, where he met Cathy Marciariello. One day after
a performance, she found the young man, who knew very few words of
English, bemoaning the fact that it was his birthday and he had no
one to celebrate with. She took him out for a celebratory dinner,
and they have been friends since.
In 1992, Istomin auditioned for the Pittsburgh Symphony and has
been with that orchestra for over two decades. He has taught cello
for 11 years at area universities and tours with his own group, The
Pittsburgh Piano Trio. Incidentally, his wife plays violin in the
group. He is truly living the American dream where anything is
[to top of second column]
If Misha Istomin had only come to Atlanta to tell stories of his
life, he would have been a great hit. His stories of his first visit
to an American supermarket or trying to learn the quirks of the
English language had the audience's rapt attention, and occasionally
he brought the house down with laughter that was infectious.
But he also came with his favorite instrument and sat down to
play. Because a symphony-quality cello can cost as much as a
half-million dollars, he chose to leave that one at home.
A cello is a delicate wooden instrument that never travels in the
airline luggage compartment. It requires a seat in the cabin and a
ticket. Even the hard-sided carrying case is only one line of
defense against damage. The wood is also subject to the vagaries of
humidity. Care must be taken.
Nina Gordon, professor of cello and chamber music at Illinois
Wesleyan University, graciously loaned Misha her much-loved
As he prepared to play selections from Bach's cello suite and a
Tchaikovsky favorite of his grandmother's, he asked the audience to
listen to the voice of the cello, how its range matched that of the
human voice. For him, that is one of the marvels of the cello, what
drew him to this instrument from an early age. And then he played,
and the cello sang. It was a terrific end to an evening with a
charming and engaging musician.
Behind the Scenes is a program presented by the Atlanta Public
Library. It is organized by Cathy Maciariello, director of community
programs, who brings acclaimed members of the arts and entertainment
world to Atlanta.
Maciariello has had a career managing performing arts
organizations nationally and internationally. The guests who appear
at the Behind the Scenes programs are personal friends of hers who
have agreed to take time from their very busy schedules to travel to
Atlanta and discuss their careers.
Maciariello and Istomin met when she was the executive director
of the Richmond Symphony, which she rescued from certain demise. But
that is another story.
Mikhail Istomin's visit to Atlanta was the final program in this
season's Behind the Scenes series. Maciariello is busy calling on
artists to take a few days and come to Atlanta for next season's
programs. She gave a hint about next year, and again she is
scheduling an eclectic mix of performers.
Check the Atlanta Public Library website for details. This is a
rare chance for people attending the series to participate in an
informal setting with renowned members of the performing arts
[By CURT FOX]