The New Yorker once described Maya Beiser as a “cello goddess”, delighting the Israeli-born player so much that she adopted the phrase as her Twitter name. Now living in New York, she has forged a distinctive career path, making it her mission to transform the nature, perception and audience of cutting-edge contemporary music. And a London audience will get a taste of her playing later this month at the UK premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s cello concerto World to Come.
Her Jewish identity, she says, remains key to her creativity. This spring, she also launches a project, All Vows, based on the Kol Nidre service, featuring commissions inspired by it from a range of composers.
Unusually for a classical musician, Beiser’s story begins on kibbutz. “My paternal grandparents left Ukraine for Argentina, where they settled in the Pampas and became Jewish Gauchos,” she recounts. Her father moved to Israel in the 1960s.“Our kibbutz was built in the Galilee by a group of Argentinian kids who believed they were going to change the world.”
Beiser’s gift for music was spotted when she was six, but she balked at the idea of learning the violin. “I needed to have my own individual voice, especially in that community — I wasn’t a tough kibbutznik. A lot of people started the violin, but nobody else played the cello. I’d heard my father’s Pablo Casals and Jacqueline du Pré recordings, so I said that was what I wanted to do.”
The great violinist Isaac Stern became her mentor after she auditioned, aged 12, for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. “They seek gifted young musicians and support them with scholarships and with a wonderful programme at the Jerusalem Music Centre. We would all meet there and play chamber music and he would give masterclasses.”
Nonetheless, Beiser was fascinated by other sound worlds, from the muezzins in Arab villages to the avant-garde rock music of Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. For a cellist, this was rebellion. “The strictness of the classical music world never appealed to me,” she confirms. “For instance, I always wanted to wear my own clothes. I wanted to wear boots on stage!”
Studying in the US at Yale, she realised that most classical stars were simply not interested in new music. “Contemporary music had a bad reputation because of the 50-year period after World War II when composers, for many reasons, adopted a very esoteric approach,” she says. This changed in the 1980s as a new generation, notably the “Minimalists” — Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich — found new ways to connect with audiences. She was inspired.
“I needed to find something that appeals to my generation; to take that remarkable tradition and connect it to who we are now as people. I wanted to take the cello into new realms. We have to keep moving forward. We have to keep creating wonderful art, otherwise we’ll die.” Over the years she has commissioned new pieces from many of today’s leading composers, including Reich, whose Cello Counterpoint was written for her.
At Yale, Beiser became friends with Lang, who together with fellow composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, founded the now celebrated collective Bang on a Can in 1987. Its first incarnation was a 12-hour new music marathon in a gallery where the audience could wander in and out. She played in it for 10 years. Bang on a Can has become a lynchpin of American contemporary music and Lang was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
His concerto, Beiser explains, was originally composed for her as a solo piece with pre-recorded multitracks about a decade ago. Later, orchestrating it for a dance company, he transformed it into a concerto. Coincidentally, it features on the soundtrack of the Italian entry for this year’s Oscars, Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza.
“Soon after 9/11 David decided to write World to Come, influenced by the idea of the afterlife in the Jewish tradition — not something that’s often talked about,” she adds. As its soloist, she must not only play her cello, but also sing: “His idea was that the cello and the voice reunite in the afterlife.” She describes the piece as “a kind of prayer… asking fundamental questions about the death and life of the soul”.
And although her Jewish background remains a significant influence — “it’s very important to me and I’ve raised my two kids in Jewish schools” — in the spiritual sense, “I’ve found my own individual way forward. I guess this is what I’ve done with everything in life.”
Maya Beiser performs David Lang’s World to Come with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart, at Queen Elizabeth Hall on February 24 - 0844 875 0073