Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mischa Mischakoff

Mischa Mischakoff was a Russian (Ukrainian) violinist, teacher, and conductor born (in Proskurov, later known as Khmelnitzky) on April 16, 1895.  His year of birth is also given as 1897.  He is known for having been concertmaster of many orchestras but especially the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini, the well-known and ill-tempered conductor.  In fact, Mischakoff may well have been concertmaster of more orchestras than any other violinist in history – ten that I know of, not counting the St Petersburg Conservatory student orchestra.  For the record, those include the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1913), the Bolshoi Ballet (1920), the Warsaw Philharmonic (1921), the New York Symphony (1923), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1927), the Chicago Symphony (1929), the NBC Symphony (1937), the Chautauqua Symphony (during summer off seasons), the Detroit Symphony (1952), and the Baltimore Symphony (1969.)  He was a gifted artist who nonetheless (unjustly) became less recognized as time went on.  That is one of the disadvantages of playing in an orchestra.  However, even at age 75, Mischakoff was a phenomenal player.  You can hear for yourself here.  As a child, Mischakoff studied with Konstantin Konstantinovich Gorsky, an obscure but highly accomplished Russian violinist.  At about age 10, he entered the St Petersburg Conservatory where he studied under Leopold Auer’s assistant, Sergei Korguyev.  He made his orchestral debut on June 25, 1911, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto.  He was either 14 or 16 years old.  Upon graduation (1912), he played very briefly in Germany (Berlin - 1912) and then became concertmaster in St Petersburg.  Some sources have him playing in Moscow as well – for the Moscow Philharmonic and the Moscow Grand Opera.  He also served in a music regiment during World War One – 1914 to 1918.  He joined the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra as concertmaster in 1920.  He was 25 years old.  In 1917, he supposedly gave the world premiere of Prokofiev’s first concerto in Russia with Prokofiev conducting.  His name should therefore be very closely associated with the concerto but it isn’t.  A different source states that the world premiere was played in Paris on October 18, 1923, followed three days later by the Russian premiere by Nathan Milstein.  The truth might be found in one of Prokofiev’s diaries; unfortunately, I don't have access to them.  In 1921, greatly assisted by Polish violinist and conductor Emil Mlynarski, he fled Russia (accompanied by cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and, later, pianist Andre Kostelanetz) during a concert tour which took them very close to the border with Poland - Nathan Milstein too, later fled Russia while on a European tour with pianist Vladimir Horowitz in 1925.  Actually, the three musicians (Mischakoff, Piatigorsky, and Kostelanetz) spent about a year in Warsaw.  Twenty years earlier, Mlynarski had been a founder (as well as conductor) of the Warsaw Philharmonic and, therefore, still had considerable influence there.  An interesting fact about Mischakoff is that he sometimes used aliases.  In Poland, he was known as Michal Fieber.  In Germany he was known as Mischa Fibere and in provincial Russia as Mischa Mazia.  Most sources state that Mischakoff arrived in the U.S. (New York) in 1921 – a single (but very authoritative) source has him arriving in New York on Friday, September 22, 1922.  Mischakoff’s birth name had been Mischa Isaakevich Fischberg (or Fishberg.)  When he arrived in the U.S., his agent suggested he change it so he did.  He never had to change it again.  At the beginning, he had to do freelance work but he quickly established himself.  On November 9, 1924, he played the Tchaikovsky concerto with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch at Aeolian Hall.  That may have been his first solo appearance in the U.S.  With the same orchestra, on March 11, 1926, he played the Brahms concerto in Carnegie Hall with Otto Klemperer on the podium.  On May 14, 1946, he performed the Tchaikovsky concerto with the New York Philharmonic (which had by then merged with the New York Symphony) at Carnegie Hall.  His longest tenure was with the NBC Symphony.  Mischakoff regularly performed as soloist with the NBC and many other orchestras during his 70-year career.  His many pupils include Ani Kavafian, Joseph Silverstein, Isidor Saslav, Leonard Sorkin, and David Cerone.  Among several other music schools, Mischakoff taught at Wayne State University (Detroit), Boston University, and the American Conservatory in Chicago.  He also taught at Juilliard from 1940 to 1952.  According to one source, he played four Stradivarius violins during his career but I could find no evidence of that.  Cozio – a usually reliable source – gives his violins as follows: (in chronological order) an 1829 Pressenda, a 1737 Gagliano, a 1731 Guarnerius, and a 1714 Stradivarius.  Mischakoff died (in Southfield, Michigan) on February 1, 1981, at age 85.  


  1. The photo I used for this blog is from Anne Mischakoff Heiles' collection. Anne wrote her father's biography: "Journeys of a Concertmaster" but I don't know if the photo is included in the book. She also recently wrote "America's Concertmasters," a collection of interviews (and historical information on a few concertmasters from the past) as well as in-depth history of many contemporary concertmasters of 12 American orchestras.

  2. This is a very helpful stuff for my current paper about Shostakovich's First symphony under Toscanini, where Mihakoff had played all violin solos... thanks a lot!

  3. I was recently reminded of how I became interested in classical music. I was about 16 in the late 50's and the mother of my current girl friend gave us tickets to hear the Florida Philharmonic in St. Petersburg. Mischa played the Tchaikovsky and I was seriously hooked. 55 years later my musical tastes run about 95% classical with the remainder a mash-up of classic country, cool jazz and Flamenco guitar. Thank you for this informative mini-bio.

    1. You are welcome and thank you so much for your comment. It's nice to have readers who are close to the "action."

  4. Uncle* Mischa told the story for years, in public as well as private (I heard it from a college classmate from Detroit) that he & Piatigorsky escaped from Russia by swimming across the Vistula, he holding his Strad in the air, Piatigorsky holding his cello in the air. Which is plausible if you knew them - Mischa was very small, while Piatigorsky was a big bear of a man. Heiles says that in private, he denied the story, saying that he & Piatigorsky just walked across a bridge.

    When Dad (Sydney Baker) became first trumpet in Chicago, shortly after Mischa had moved on, Uncle Mischa gave him two used suits (tails), one black for evening performances, one gray (morning coat, striped pants) for daytime performances - they were about the same size, 5'2".

    *He was my grandmother's brother.

  5. my mother who recently passed away studied with mischa mischakoff when he was with CSO and in chicago. She also worked with florence gindl who worked with him also. she played many years with the northwest indiana symphony .