To know Yvar Mikhashoff for five minutes or a lifetime was to enter a force field of appetite and exuberance seldom experienced. 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 came to teach 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, an image 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 by way of the Ives Concord Sonata, which he memorably recorded.
He cared nothing for the aesthetic police and this got him into trouble with those who thought his catholicity of taste a want of seriousness. I shall never forget his appearance at Darmstadt, that citadel of high modernism, in 1984. He was not an invited performer, but showed up and asked if he could give a non-festival concert at midnight, after official events. I feared the worst-a scant crowd with little interest in what he would play. I should have known better. The gymnasium was packed with young people. Yvar emerged from the wings in blue blazer, red tie, white carnation and launched into Ginastera's Danzas, a 1940's decidedly non-Darmstadt piece. At its conclusion the crowd erupted in shouts and applause. As Yvar acknowledged the ovation, he gave me a wink and a smile. He had rolled the dice - and won.