Remembering Yvar by Nils Vigeland

Saturday, October 26, 2013

To know Yvar Mikhashoff for five minutes or a lifetime was to enter a force field of vitality and exuberance one seldom experiences. He was both a simple and complex person-simple in that he responded immediately to anything or anyone he found attractive or interesting and complex in that these responses resulted in a life almost too full of variety. Yet for those who knew him well there was a sweetness, a gentleness and generosity always present.

While perhaps best known as a pianist, Yvar’s primary studies were in composition. When he was hired to teach piano at SUNY Buffalo in 1973, he had just completed his doctorate in composition at the University of Texas at Austin. Choosing the career path of performance over composition was clarified when his father asked him if he wanted to take the bow from the stage or the audience. That, he told me, settled the issue.

Yvar was a large man, somewhat awkward, who often seemed completely at odds with daily life. He never knew where his keys were, had no sense of time or direction and depended on others for meals and transportation. It was on the stage he was at home. He taught ballroom dancing for three years in the 60’s and once in an old Baird Hall program of American popular songs of the turn of the century, he ceded the piano to a student and waltzed with the soprano, the personification of perfect grace and contentment.

He was a wonderful teacher, encouraging each student to play the music they loved. He was very precise in lessons, writing fingerings and commentary in the scores and often illustrating the sound concept by playing himself a passage in question. He seemed to know the entire repertoire, though he was most at home in the virtuoso pieces from Liszt and Chopin to Ravel and Debussy by way of the Ives Concord Sonata, which he memorably recorded.

He cared nothing for aesthetic politics and this got him into trouble with those who thought his catholicity of taste a want of seriousness. I shall never forget his appearance in 1984 at Darmstadt, that citadel of high modernism. He was not an invited performer, but showed up and, on the basis of his reputation, was given a midnight non-festival time slot to play in a school gymnasium. I feared the worst-a scant crowd with little interest in what he would play. I should have known better.

Sporting a vivid red tie and a carnation in his lapel, he strode to the piano and launched into Ginestera’s Danzas Argentinas, about as far from any music written since 1940 being played at the festival. The sizable audience of young people, perhaps attracted by the unusual hour and outsider aspect of the concert, erupted in wild applause. He had thrown the dice-and won.

Let’s think then of Remembering Yvar as a party, these six hours of music played by

his friends, colleagues, former students and fellow torchbearers for the new, whatever that might be. That’s the only way Yvar would have it.

Nils Vigeland
August 2013