Vladimir Ashkenazy, arguably one of the best pianists of our time, nearly didn’t make it to the conducting podium.
Ashkenazy - who was ranked recently by Classic FM as one of 25 greatest pianists of all time - had to be convinced to take hold of a baton.
He is in New Zealand to conduct the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara Isle of Bliss, Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto (with British oboist Gordon Hunt) and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2.
Music is life for Vladimir Ashkenazy - listening, playing, and conducting. Although he has performed “almost everything” he still finds joy in it.
The pieces he’s conducting with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra are no different even though he’s listened to them and conducted them hundreds of times. Each chance to perform brings something different. That’s what happens when performing “great music”.
“You always find something new,” he says. “Another colour; another phrase; another meaning in a certain area of music - when you’ve always lived with great music you always find something new.”
Ashkenazy has the ability to express himself freely through the music, but it always hasn’t been the case. He left his homeland of Russia in the early 1960s and hasn’t lived there since. It was a time of dictatorship and tremendous problems.
“Life in Russia for artists was difficult,” he says. “There was no freedom of conscience or freedom of speech.”
It was his wife, Icelandic pianist Thorunn Jóhannsdóttir, who introduced him to the Western way of life. She also introduced him to Sibelius symphonies when they were both students, and that was the start of his love affair with the composer’s works.
“Explaining love for music is very difficult,” he laughs.
“Russian music, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart were part of my education, but Sibelius wasn’t,” he says. “My wife-to-be brought a tape of Sibelius 'two' and I had never heard it. I was overwhelmed by the piece.”
His fondness for Sibelius grew as his relationship with his wife-to-be grew. He collected as much of Sibelius’ work as he could and learned the lot. “I’ve conducted practically all of his pieces now,” he says.
Along with Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, Ashkenazy will also conduct Strauss' Oboe Concerto, with British oboist Gordon Hunt. Ashkenazy and Hunt have worked and performed together for more than 20 years.
The opening piece for this week’s performance is Isle of Bliss by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara – someone Ashkenazy has a close connection with. They had a friendship in and out of music. Ashkenazy performed a piano concerto composed for him by Rautavarra. “He was a very gentle and dedicated person and very talented. I liked him very much as a composer and as a human being.”
The recording of the concerto is one of many Ashkenazy did during his career as a pianist.
New Zealanders have been fortunate enough to see him play; first in 1983 at the Auckland Town Hall performing Bartok’s very physical second piano concerto, which he described in an interview with Ian Fraser at the time as “crazy” and “almost unplayable”. He returned in 2010 for the NZ International Arts Festival to perform Mahler's eighth symphony with the NZSO.
Although he’s revered as one of the best pianists in the world, he no longer performs in public, although he still practices daily.
He thought he’d always be a pianist and not a conductor. Ashkenazy confesses he’d always been fond of the orchestra sound and had many friends who played, but conducting wasn’t something he thought about all that often.
In the 1970s his father-in-law, who was a conductor, offered to give him a few lessons. “It was too complicated!” he says. “I didn’t really want it."
But friends, family members and colleagues persevered in convincing him to give a go. He was invited to conduct a chamber orchestra concert in London, so had a few lessons and took to the stage in front of an orchestra consisting of both amateur and professional musicians. “They played quite well in spite of my conducting,” he says. “The end of the overture was quite good. Whatever I did I got the right timing and sound.”
And as they say, the rest is history. But whether conducting or not, each time he stands up in front of a new orchestra, he connects to the music and the meaning. He’s especially looking forward to performing Isle of Bliss this week.
“It gives you a spirit, a feeling of bliss,” he says. “It’s a very serene piece.”