DON’T CALL ME MAESTRO
The diminutive powerhouse Vladimir Ashkenazy is about to take up his baton at the head of the Sydney Symphony, writes Matthew Westwood
MAESTRO. The title is used almost indiscriminately these days, but the image it conjures is still a potent one: the commanding chief conductor, whitehaired lord of the concert hall, conjurer of musical magic. Look upon him, ye back- desk violinist, and tremble.
Vladimir Ashkenazy, the former concert pianist now in the mature years of his second career as a conductor, rejects the appellation. He is about to begin his four- year term as principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony, making him the orchestra’s figurehead and musician- in- chief. But when people call him maestro, he lets it be known that he prefers Mr Ashkenazy.
Whether maestro or mister, however, Ashkenazy, 71, will not be wanting respect in Sydney: the prestige attached to such a prominent name in the music world is reflected on the orchestra. But by rejecting the honorific maestro, Ashkenazy has also rejected the outmoded model of the conductor as egocentric tyrant, for whom the orchestra exists as a symbol of power. Instead, he focuses on the responsibilities.
‘‘ It’s to do a lot of music- making and to do your best, basically,’’ Ashkenazy says on the phone from Switzerland. ‘‘ I don’t use the title in the sense of exercising power or anything like that. I’m not that type of person, I don’t encroach on other people.’’
Ashkenazy has already become familiar to Sydney audiences: his outstanding cycle of Sibelius symphonies in 2004 was the breakthrough that led to him coming aboard as principal conductor; last year he returned for a Rachmaninov series at the Sydney Opera House.
On the podium he is a diminutive rather than domineering figure, and he often opts for a turtleneck sweater rather than the maestro’s traditional white tie. Arthritis may have ended his career as a concert pianist, but as a conductor, his gestures are fleet and agile. He is exciting to watch and, more importantly, musicians respond to him.
Born in Gorky, in the former Soviet Union, Ashkenazy is a noted interpreter of Russian music, both in the piano and orchestral repertoire: Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev.
But he wants it known that he does not specialise solely in Russian music. Similarly, he is anxious to dispel any misconceptions about his life in the USSR. He was recruited ‘‘ under pressure’’ by the KGB but never did any spying;
nor did he and his wife defect from the Soviet Union: ‘‘ I never asked for political asylum or anything,’’ he told this writer last year. ‘‘ We decided to stay in Britain.’’
This may help explain Ashkenazy’s deep affection for the British people. Indeed, he is something of an Anglophile, saying he admires the combination of British reserve, warmth and pragmatism. He is, somewhat unexpectedly, a keen advocate for British music, and his next round of concerts with the Sydney Symphony is of music by that most British of composers, Edward Elgar.
‘‘ Elgar’s music touches me very deeply, and I hope that I can do a good job with his symphonies,’’ the conductor says. ‘‘ In Britain, he is revered very much, and rightly so. Other parts of the world treat him with condescension, except for the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto; these are regarded as great pieces of the repertoire. But the rest, people look at with a little less approval. It’s a pity, because I think the music is trying to express some of the very important categories in our lives, but what can you do? You can’t argue with some people . . .
‘‘ I am very fond, basically, of the Anglo- Saxon attitude to life, it appeals to me. So I probably feel this music reasonably well, and I want to do it.’’
So deep is his attachment to Britain ( although Ashkenazy is a citizen of Iceland, and lives in Switzerland), that when discussing the qualities of the Sydney Symphony, he compares it with London orchestras.
‘‘ I’ve been around the world and conducted all the greatest orchestras, and the Sydney Symphony can compare very favourably with most of them,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s at a very high level, and that’s what’s important. A high level of commitment, a high level of ability, and also very friendly people, very pleasant.’’
Last week, the Sydney Symphony announced details of Ashkenazy’s first concert season, a year that marks the bicentenaries of two composers: that of Mendelssohn’s birth in 1809, and of Haydn’s death in the same year. Peter Sculthorpe, 80 next year, is another composer honoured with anniversary performances.
The 2009 season opens with a semi- staged performance of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream . Then, a week later, Ashkenazy conducts a program featuring Dvorak’s Violin Concerto ( with soloist Janine Jansen), and Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10.
The tenth was a milestone work for the composer: it was his first new symphony to be performed after the death of Stalin in 1953. Shostakovich had been publicly reprimanded by Soviet authorities in 1936 for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District , and by the 1948 decree against decadent ‘‘ formalism’’ in music.
Ashkenazy met Shostakovich several times and, when he was in his early 20s, once performed the composer’s chamber music in his apartment in Moscow: ‘‘ He was terribly nice, and we played quite well, and he didn’t say anything, except, ‘ Very good, very good, very good.’ That’s all! We had a cup of tea and we left.’’
He remembers vividly the first Moscow performance of the tenth symphony, which he attended as a teenager. ‘‘ We realised what Shostakovich felt about his life,’’ Ashkenazy says with a grim laugh. ‘‘ We could hear through his music what he suffered and how difficult it was for him to exist in that terrible dictatorship. We sympathised with him and we applauded him as a great composer but we knew that we were applauding him also as an individual who suffered immensely from the Soviet authorities.
‘‘ But there’s nothing the Party could do, they couldn’t stop him having his symphonies performed: he was too famous, too great a person. And he was very careful in what he uttered publicly. He always said, ‘ Oh yes, the Party is great, the Soviet Union, I’m a devoted citizen’, and all that. But in music he expressed everything he wanted to.’’
Mussorgsky’s stirring tone poem, Pictures at an Exhibition , was written originally for solo piano, but is best known to concert- goers in the AN orchestra’s reputation and identity is inseparable from that of its chief conductor, at least while that relationship lasts. In Australia, our chief conductors have always been men, and they are nearly always foreigners. As a nation, we are in awe of the international maestro.
Since its inaugural concerts in 1932, the orchestra that became the Sydney Symphony has attempted to attract world stars of the concert platform. In the 1930s, writes Phillip Sametz in his history of the orchestra, Play On! , ‘‘ it would have seemed absurd to have appointed an Australian as chief conductor. What the audience, the press and to an extent the musicians wanted, was a galvanising, glamorous foreigner.’’
The Sydney Symphony has indeed had some tantalising foreign affairs: for example, Eugene Goossens, the ambitious and ultimately tragic Englishman, and the highly praised but unexpectedly brief term of Czech conductor Zdenek Macal in the ’ 80s. The orchestra had a good decade of stability and rigour under Dutchman Edo de orchestral version by Ravel. Next May, in a concert with Shostakovich’s first violin concerto, Ashkenazy presents his own orchestration of the famous piece. Ravel, he says, was a brilliant orchestrator, but his Pictures was way too French for the Russians.
‘‘ The ( Ravel) orchestration is played in Russia very seldom,’’ he says. ‘‘ We don’t particularly like it as far as a Russian spirit is concerned. As a piece of orchestration it’s fantastic, but it hasn’t much to do with the Russianness of the piece.
‘‘ I decided not to outdo Ravel, because you can’t, but to do my very strong, Russiancolour orchestration.’’
Ashkenazy concludes his 2009 season with orchestral music by Prokofiev. The composer also suffered the vicissitudes of the Soviet authorities. He fled Russia following the 1917 revolution, chose to return in 1936, was castigated in the same 1948 decree as Shostakovich, and died on the same day as Stalin.
As with his Rachmaninov cycle, Ashkenazy’s performances of Prokofiev will be recorded for the Japanese label Octavia. The concert series will include four of the composer’s seven symphonies, violin and piano concertos and other works, but stops short of being a full concert survey of his symphonic output.
Ashkenazy says that some of the symphonies — the second, third and fourth — are not as accomplished as others, which is why they are not being given an audience.
‘‘ We’re doing the most famous ones in concert, and others we record. There’s no time, that’s why. We can’t play everything. So we play the pieces that are well known, the most popular ones that please the audiences. The ( other) symphonies are not as strong as the others, but we have to record them in order to have the cycle of symphonies on record.’’ Waart, while Ashkenazy’s predecessor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, brought plenty of Italian charisma and some ambitious ideas, but proved to be disappointingly inconsistent.
The orchestra has had two eminent Australian leaders. Charles Mackerras was overlooked for years before he took up the baton in the ’ 80s, by which time he was preoccupied with his international career. Stuart Challender was the bright hope before his death from AIDS in 1991, at the age of 44: a tragedy for Australian music.
Elsewhere in the classical music world, orchestras have renewed their stocks and generated enormous interest by opting for youth over venerability. The exciting Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, 27, will next year become music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, succeeding Esa- Pekka Salonen, himself only 34 when he took the post. Yannick Nezet- Seguin, the young Canadian who has created a big impression in Sydney, is beginning his first season at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, stepping into the shoes of one of the world’s leading maestros, Valery Gergiev.
So the appointment of Ashkenazy as principal conductor again reveals a preference for age, celebrity and a foreign passport. And it’s with those attributes that management hopes to burnish the Sydney Symphony’s reputation at home and abroad.
Because orchestras need to plan several years in advance, Ashkenazy’s identity will not be fully felt at the orchestra until the 2010 season. He will be expected to work his address book and convince star soloists to visit these shores. He mentions the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin (‘‘ He’s a good friend and he’s promised to come’’) and the glamorous German violinist Anne- Sophie Mutter as possible guest artists in future concert seasons.
Of Ashkenazy’s 11 weeks with the orchestra in 2009, seven will be spent rehearsing and giving concerts at the Sydney Opera House. He is also due to give a concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The rest of his time will be devoted to recording Prokofiev’s symphonies and taking the orchestra on tour to China. A European tour is a possibility for 2010, he says.
‘‘ Of course, I try to give as much help as I can: foreign tours, and choosing principal players when somebody is retiring and so on,’’ he says. ‘‘ That’s the duty of the principal conductor, I think. That’s basically all; the rest is just musicmaking. The only danger is if the orchestra gets tired of me! You can’t do anything about that: that’s human nature. I do my best.’’
Exciting to watch: But Vladimir Ashkenazy is no baton- wielding tyrant of the podium