Born in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic in the former Soviet Union, musician and composer Tanya Anisimova began studying the cello at the age of 7, after moving to Moscow with her parents when she was 6.
Unlike so many musicians who have experienced great moments of recognition in regards to their futures, Anisimova, who will play a concert at Rockfish Valley Community Center this Saturday, says she does not have a grand story about how the cello first came into her life.
“In Grozny, I was studying the piano all the time and it annoyed everyone because they couldn’t take me away from the piano,” she says from her home in Maryland after a day of teaching in the recording studio.
Anisimova’s father wanted her to study a different instrument and took her to a faculty concert at a local music school, where they saw a trio — a violinist, a pianist and a cellist.
He decided upon the cello.
“That was not something I really wanted to do,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t really know what the humongous instrument was.”
A teacher even tried to persuade her father to choose a smaller, more manageable instrument, but he insisted.
After being accepted to The Central Music School in Moscow, one of the most prestigious music schools for children younger than 18 and a preparatory for the Moscow Conservatory, Anisimova continued to study and master her technique.
Despite this accomplishment, some still considered her success in music a long shot, because unlike many other children in the school, her parents were not famous musicians.
“Even the person who fixed our instruments, when I would go to him to fix my cello strings, he would say, ‘You’re the one who doesn’t come from the musical family. You’re going to have problems; I don’t think you’re going to make it.’”
Anisimova proved them wrong.
After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, she continued her studies at Boston University and Yale School of Music, earning a doctorate in musical arts at the latter.
She has won top prizes at international competitions in Germany, Japan and Russia. She played a sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall and has performed concerts in such countries as Iceland and Mexico. She has also released eight CDs, including her own cello transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin” in the early 2000s, which received international recognition.
“Anisimova’s interpretations were invariably full of personality and character — whether in the spectral harmonies of Cesar Franck, the lush themes of Rachmaninoff, or her own music that marries a sense of wild fancy and studied control,” Daniel Ginsberg wrote in The Washington Post about a 2007 performance at the Mansion at Strathmore in Maryland. “Anisimova emerges as a highly focused artist with lots of ideas and the dexterity to back them up.”
For more than 10 years, the cellist and her husband lived in various areas of the Blue Ridge region, including Afton, Nellysford and Amherst, before moving back to Maryland, where she currently composes and teaches.
Even after many years in the United States, her voice still holds that consummate Eastern European accent, which adds an intensity and depth to her conversations as she expounds upon her art.
“If not for music, I would be a different person,” she says. “The telephone number, I hear them as notes, sometimes. I hear a siren, I know the notes. Everything sounds [like music] to me. … I think everything is music, so to say how music influenced my life is very hard because this is my life. Everything I perceive in this world is musical.”
How did the culture of the Soviet Union impact music and playing music?
“The style of playing that was acceptable was very much reflecting the style of life of the Soviet citizens. [It] was very rudimentary, it was fast, loud, precise and without much personality because as soon as you wanted to express something of your own, you would be shut down. Mainly, there were teachers — thankfully, my teacher wasn’t one of them — prominent teachers would import that style … very robust, very bold, very loud. Not [many] nuances, not very sophisticated. This was the style of the Soviets.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever watched any hockey games or seen gymnasts during the Olympic Games or World Championships, [but] you’ve probably been watching the Soviets, they’re very strong but very mechanical, almost like they’re afraid to show anything other than technical perfection. The same thing was [the case] in Red China — sportsmen and musicians under Mao.”
Women didn’t always play the cello.
“It was said a woman could not play [the cello] well because it’s such a big instrument. It used to be in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, men played cello and women were envying them. Then there was this amazing player, her name [was] Zara Nelsova … and she concertized [it]; she was really hated for playing cello so well. … The fact was women were fighting for their place. Just like they were fighting [in] many other realms of life, they were fighting for their place to be cellists. And nowadays, we have many fantastic women cellists. The main argument was the cello is so hard to play; it’s such a physical instrument, you have to be very strong and that turned out to be untrue. If you play the cello correctly, it’s very easy to play.”
What for you makes the cello different from other string instruments?
“It’s so close to you. Basically your torso’s lined up with it, then you hug it with your knees and embrace it with your arms, and its neck is right next to your neck and its scroll is right next to your ear. Sometimes [when] cellists play, they put their cheek just above the strings, right on the base of the scroll — right there on the head of the cello — and enjoy the sound. I think this is perhaps the most human … instrument. It speaks with the range of the human voice and its timbre, the character of its sound, also resembles the human voice. … It has this healing power. That’s what makes it special.”
You have studied J.S. Bach intently, both in your doctoral thesis and then arranging his pieces for cello. What made you choose to focus so intently on Bach?
“When my mom died, I was 15 and I didn’t cry because — I guess I blocked something. [I’m] one of those people who [doesn't] cry when they’re shocked. It was in Moscow, in my father’s friend’s apartment, I was staying there by myself [for] a couple of days. I had my cello with me and I was excused from school.
“I had nothing to do and there was this book of Bach cello suites and I opened it and I started to play. And I can’t quite explain what happened next, but somehow I felt like I was home. I felt like I arrived somewhere. I was totally in a void, unable to express my grief and then I sat down, I started to play Bach — it was [his] second suite — everything made sense, somehow.
“In Russia, Bach was not that well respected, because he was a religiously-inspired composer, and that was a bad thing for the communists, so they did not promote him that much. But, I guess it stayed with me. The first thing that I did [in the U.S.] when I came in 1990 [was] I went to the MIT music library and got all the Bach records that there were. And I was just listening for months. Then, once I got accepted to BU, I went there and also listened to everything they had. And at Yale, I did the same thing.
“If you’ve read the Bible — really spent time going through the Old Testament and the New Testament — you apply what you experienced there to the stories you read after. That’s the same with Bach, I guess. It’s like the Bible for musicians. Once you’ve gone through this, really studied it diligently, everything makes sense. It’s open and easy.”
Article by EMMA SCHKLOVEN