The diminu­tive pow­er­house Vladimir Ashke­nazy is about to take up his ba­ton at the head of the Syd­ney Sym­phony, writes Matthew Westwood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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