BY MIKE COHEN
CONDUCTOR Misha Rachlevsky uses humour to describe what it was like being Jewish in 1970s Soviet Union.
The Moscow-born founder of the Russian String Orchestra — also known as Misha’s Gang — studied at the Moscow Conservatory and the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music.
But when I asked him if his Judaism caused him problems there, he replied:
“Let me answer with jokes from the 1970s — the time of a wave of emigration to Israel from Russia — and yes, we did not know the term ‘politically correct’ then.
“Nine out of 10 people getting off the plane at Ben-Gurion airport are carrying violins. Who are those 10 remaining per cent of immigrants? The pianists . . .
“And one pinned by violinist Isaac Stern, which is more like a fact than a joke: ‘Cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States is when they send us a violinist from Odessa and we send them a violinist from Odessa’.”
Misha, who starts his run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this weekend, added: “Not only were the world-class artists from the Soviet Union Jews — Oistrakh, Kogan and Gilels — but the violin sections of the Russian orchestras were exclusively, or close to it, staffed by Jews.
“Yes, we heard stories that there was a certain number of non-Jews that had to be present, but until mid-70s or so I don’t recall this being an issue, at least in my case and those around me.”
In 1991, violinist Misha founded the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, which built up a reputation for the depth and variety of its repertoire.
The ensemble, which later changed its name to the Russian String Orchestra, has released numerous CDs.
Misha was born in Moscow on November 13, 1946, and started learning the violin when he was five.
He left the Soviet Union in 1973, working in Israel, South Africa and Canada before settling in America in 1976.
He founded the New American Chamber Orchestra and then moved to Spain in 1989.
Misha then returned to live in his birthplace, but what had it been like growing up in Moscow?
“To answer this question can take months, if not years,” Misha said. “But besides that, I don’t think my story would contribute anything to the many fine accounts already in existence.
“The northern suburb of Moscow, where I was growing up, was very densely populated and, to a large degree, the lives of our neighbours were similar to ours — hard work and little time for anything else by breadwinners of the families, the kids pretty much left on their own to do what they please.”
Misha said his family didn’t try to hide their Jewish identity.
“It would not be possible anyway,” he said, “not just because of the family names, but often facial features would be yet a more obvious giveaway. Luckily there were many of us around.”
Misha was always aware of his background.
“In Russian passports there was a notorious ‘Fifth point’ — one following last, first, patronymic names and date of birth.
“It was called ‘nationality’ — and it did not mean ‘Soviet Union’, but ethnic/religious origins.
“So, if both parents were Jews, the child would be automatically identified as a Jew, and if only one of the parents was Jewish, then ‘nationality’ of either of the parents could be entered.
“The same with last name, so if Mr Rabinowitz would marry Ms Ivanov, the child could have either last name.
“Sometimes Mr Rabinowitz could take the last name of his wife and become Mr Ivanov. Besides this formal side, even in kindergarten or elementary school, the kids would already clearly know who is who.
“As religion was not a part of life, the Jews were not ‘killers of the Christ,’ but perhaps the greedy fat-cats, making money off pure and innocent Russians.”
He added: “My classmates in elementary school could say that they hated Jews, except me and their other Jewish friends in class or the neighbourhood.”
Misha struggled to leave Russia in 1973?
He explained: “In the early 1970s, a law was enacted demanding repaying the state for education. That was a huge obstacle for many Jews wishing to emigrate.
“The US Senate put out a painful countermeasure, something akin to the current ‘sanctions’ and it was taken off.
“In early 1973, when I applied, there were thousands of applications submitted, and many of us were ‘in between’ — no refusals and no permissions.
“Then in October, the Yom Kippur War started and, within days, tens of thousands of permissions were granted —the authorities were counting on the success of the Arab coalition in the first days of the war making the Jews change their minds, stay in Russia and provide a good propaganda tool.
“Much to the joy and pride of all of us, there was no one who did so.
“I was given something around a week or 10 days to leave, but there were no tickets left and even Russian authorities could not complete the needed paperwork on time, so I had an extension of a week or so, and left on November 10.
“As I was a musician, there was no much value in me to the country, so there were no reasons to refuse my request.”
Misha was the only member of his family to leave — a situation which he found tough.
“ At that time the prospects of never seeing my family again were pretty real,” he said.
“Then, a few years later, my cousin with the family followed my steps, but by this time already straight to America.
“I was already pretty well settled there and could be their official ‘sponsor’.
“In 1991, my immediate family — mother, sister, brother with their families — all moved to America.”
Misha spent three years unsettled after leaving Russia.
When he arrived in Israel, he successfully auditioned for the Israel Chamber Orchestra.
He explained: “This was a fine orchestra, but the style of work was not what I expected and therefore disappointing — it is too technical to explain, but the musicians and those ‘in the know’ of our kitchen will understand me: I was used to treatment of chamber orchestra as a ‘big quartet’, but here it was a small symphony.
“I should add that I spent four years in the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and that pretty much predetermined my professional life.
“The other chamber orchestras in Israel were not quite in the same league and I wasn’t sure I would be happy in the Israel Philharmonic — a truly great symphony orchestra — even if I were lucky enough to win a position there. So, I decided to move.
“By chance, I found out about an audition for the Durban (South Africa) Symphony for a four-month season. That was an excellent opportunity to learn basic English and earn some money.
“I auditioned, got the job and, while there, Italian conductor Piero Gamba heard me play and offered me a job in the Winnipeg (Canada) Symphony, where he was the music director.
“I agreed, went to Canada and spent a season and a half there. I decided to make another one or two moves to arrive to a place where I would want to spend a considerable amount of time.
“I played some auditions, won a couple of them and selected the Detroit Symphony — one of the major USA orchestras.”
Misha continued: “Shortly after joining the Detroit Symphony, I began playing and producing chamber music concerts in Detroit.
“My little agency grew very fast and, by 1984, I left the Detroit Symphony and formed my own full-time chamber orchestra.
“The funding that we were able to generate in Detroit was not sufficient to support the speed, at which we grew — in the first four years we, in addition to the numerous cycles of concerts in Detroit, went on nine European tours.
“I decided to move the orchestra from Detroit to a place, which would be more challenging artistically and, at the same time, provide a better support base.
“So, after I announced our availability, we received a few offers and the most interesting of them was from Granada, Spain!
“Granada wanted to engage me to build a chamber orchestra for them, and my condition was that I can move only with my own orchestra.
“They gave us a two-year residency and I had a wonderfully crazy two years working with two orchestras practically around the clock.”
Misha was soon on the move again — this time back to Russia.
He explained: “When Gorbachev came to power, those of us who left the Soviet Union were no longer considered traitors or enemies and could visit Russia.
“As my parents, brother and sister with their families were all still in Russia at the time, I was going on short visits and on one of them I was invited to conduct the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.
“The concert was televised, I had a copy of the video, and when I was visiting with the president of the Swiss recording label Claves, for whom I already did some work with Granada Chamber Orchestra, I mentioned this video and, after it was viewed, I was on the spot offered contract to record Russian and Soviet composers for this label.
“I suggested making these recordings with Russian musicians and got immediate approval.
“On the incredible wave of euphoria, which followed the defeat of the infamous putsch of August 1991, I decided to do this project with a brand new formation, instead of engaging one or another Moscow orchestra.
“I ended up turning the pick-up recording orchestra into a full-time formation, which is going strong to this date.”
But how different was the new Russia to the one he had left?
Misha replied: “I wanted to say ‘completely’, but stopped . . .
“Yes, many things were changed for the better, but I can clearly see now why Moses took his people on a 40-year trip for spiritual rebirth.
“Earlier I was far more optimistic about Russia, but now I am not convinced that even 40 years will be enough . . . and I am not talking about the government, but the people — it is them, after all, who elect such government.”
How did Misha move into conducting?
“This is a really cute story,” he said. “Summer 1991, the recently founded Granada Chamber Orchestra is scheduled to perform the opening concert of the Granada International Music Festival.
“I was ‘Leader’ as they say in the UK or ‘Concertino’ in Spain — conducting the orchestra, but from the concertmaster’s chair as opposed to conducting with the baton.
“The soloist was a great Spanish guitar virtuoso, Narciso Yepes. When he arrived for the rehearsal a day before the concert, I went to chat with him a bit to clarify a few points.
“He said: ‘Listen, I’ve played this piece all my life. From what I heard, the orchestra is well prepared, so don’t worry, just give me a cue with your stick and all will be fine.’
“I said: ‘Wonderful, I will do that, but I will give you the cues not with the stick, but with the bow, from the leader’s chair.”
“Mr Yepes would not have any of it: ‘Come up and conduct or get someone to stand and conduct, but if there is no one there, I am not coming on stage.’
“I was sure that once we begin playing the way I proposed, it all indeed will be fine, so I said: ‘Please, do me a great favour. Let’s begin rehearsing. The first moment you feel any discomfort I will stand up and conduct.’
“He replied: ‘I am too old of a dog to learn new tricks. Without a conductor I am not walking on stage even for the rehearsal.’
“So, I picked up a pencil and we went on stage. Next evening I conducted the orchestra in front of Queen Sofia of Spain and national TV.”
In 1991, Misha took up conducting full-time.
Eight years later, after hearing The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla, Misha decided to perform again.
“I had six weeks to practice, as always,” he said. “Overall I was quite happy with the result. Russian National TV recorded the concert, and it is on our YouTube channel.
“And after that, I happily put my fiddle in case for good . . .”
Misha’s Gang has 14 musicians.
It had 17 members in 2013, but its state funding was axed, so Misha had to reduce the number of musicians as well as the office staff.
Last year, Glasgow-born Ken Climie, who lives in Moscow, took Misha to Edinburgh to see the Fringe.
And Misha thought it would be ideal to perform this year to celebrate his 70th birthday — and the festival’s 70th anniversary.
Misha promises audiences at his shows in Edinburgh a unique experience. The orchestra never performs the same concert twice and audience members are encouraged to choose the set-list.
Misha’s Gang performs at SpaceTriplex, Venue 38, from today until tomorrow. From Monday until August 26, it performs at theSpace@Surgeons’ Hall, Venue 53.
“I wonder if it is possible to be in Edinburgh in any capacity and not be excited, and being a part of the action makes it yet more exhilarating,” Misha said.
Misha says he isn’t religious, explaining: “I am grateful for the many things I inherited from my parents, but, regrettably, although they were fluent in Yiddish and at least moderately observant of Jewish traditions, we, the kids, were purposely kept away from it — such were the times.”
He celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year with a gala concert in three parts at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.