A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Vladimir Ashkenazy is a classical music star who was born in the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. He moved to London in the 1960s. Ashkenazy is a renowned chamber music performer and six-time Grammy award-winning pianist. He is also a veteran conductor and is touring the U.S. in April with the European Union Youth Orchestra. Vladimir Ashkenazy talks about his life, his career and his passion for classical music.
- Vladimir Ashkenazy Six-time Grammy award-winning pianist, renowned chamber music performer and veteran conductor of international orchestras, including the European Union Youth Orchestra.
Vladimir Ashkenazy was born in Russia, settled in London, became a citizen of Iceland, lives in Switzerland and is now principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. For more than a decade, the Grammy award-winning pianist also has directed the European Union Youth Orchestra. The group is now on tour in the United States.
Born In Stalinist Russia
Because Asnkenazy’s talent as a pianist was discovered at a young age, he was able to study in the Central Music School of Moscow and then the conservatory, so he experienced some insulation from what the system in Russia was like at the time. “Everything was supported by the government so I had a very good musical education,” he said. But he remembers the day Stalin died. Everything was absolutely silent in Moscow, he said. He asked his piano teacher, an Armenian, what would happen now that Stalin was dead. She whispered in his ear that everything would be better now.
Some Things “Impossible” To Play
Ashkenazy said it’s hard to answer whether it was “easy” for him to learn piano, but because his hands aren’t very large, he does find that some things are almost “impossible” for him to play. “For instance, Franz Liszt, the great pianist, had huge hands. For instance, Van Cliburn has big hands too and Richter, a great Russian pianist. Mine are small so some things I couldn’t play,” he said. Ashkenazy thought Tchaikovsky, in particular, would be very hard for him. But he did play Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with great success. “I managed, but it was very difficult,” he said.
Buying Music In The West
When Ashkenazy finally got to travel to the west, he bought many music albums he couldn’t get at home, in Communist Russia. “I love music very much. In the Soviet Union, there weren’t so many recordings of all the greatest world music and not so many scores to be bought. So when I came to the West, when I started traveling to the West, first to Belgium, then to West Germany, then to America, I brought suitcases full of LPs of course and scores, too. So I became an object of envy from many musicians in Moscow and they borrowed things from me,” he said.
Still A Russian Citizen
Ashkenazy still considers himself a Russian citizen, although he came to settle in London and lives in Switzerland. “I’m born there. I got my musical education there. My mother was very Russian. My father was Jewish, my mother Russian. She christened me in the Russian Orthodox Church so I’m a Christian. And my country will always stay in me absolutely to the moment I die. But I benefited so much from being in the West, you can’t imagine. No words will suffice to tell you how much,” he said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. Vladimir Ashkenazy was born in Russia, settled in London, became a citizen of Iceland, lives in Switzerland and is now principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
MS. SUSAN PAGEFor more than a decade, the Grammy award-winning pianist also has directed the European Union Youth Orchestra. The group is now on tour in the United States. He joins me in the studio to discuss his life and his music. Mr. Ashkenazy we're honored to welcome you to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. VLADIMIR ASHKENAZYThank you for having me.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to ask questions, make comments. Later in this hour, you can call our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, I think we'd like to start with a clip, just a bit of music from your new CD "Russian Fantasy." Let's listen to it now.
PAGESo you are playing the piano here with your son?
PAGETell us about that experience. Did you enjoy that?
ASHKENAZYWell, my son is a very good pianist and we found a lot of repertoires that we could play on two pianos and so we recorded a couple of CDs already and play quite a lot together. It's a great pleasure.
PAGEAnd the CD from last November is called "Russian Fantasy." So you were born in Stalinist Russia?
ASHKENAZYThat's right. Can you imagine?
PAGEI can't imagine. What was it like?
ASHKENAZYWell, you know as a child, because I was sort of talented as a pianist, I studied in the Central Music School of Moscow and then in the Conservatory. I wasn't really aware of what the system was like. You become aware when you become an adult and when you have to deal with all sorts of things. But as a student, it was fine. Everything was supported by the government so I had a very good musical education.
PAGEYou remember the day that Stalin died?
ASHKENAZYOh, yes, I do and how. I remember I went through the absolutely silent Moscow. I had a lesson with my teacher. She was Armenian, not Georgian. I came to her apartment and I said, what will happen now that Stalin died and the whole of Moscow stopped, the whole country stopped? And she whispered into my ear, in her apartment, it will be better now, fantastic.
PAGEBut at that time, a lot of people in Russia were concerned that it was catastrophic, that things would be disastrous without Stalin?
ASHKENAZYWell, I suppose many people who weren't thinking terribly much didn't think anything, but now people who understood what was happening, they were very happy, but they couldn't say it.
PAGEYou've talked about sitting down for your first piano lesson and realizing this was exactly the place you should be. What was it like when you started to take piano lessons?
ASHKENAZYWell, I don't remember that. I was six years old, you know, and I progressed fairly fast and started playing lots of things. I can't remember that terribly well.
PAGEBut I read that you said, I learned so fast once I had started, it seemed as though it was something I already carried inside me and knew how to do without needing to be taught, in your book "Beyond Frontiers."
ASHKENAZYWell, if you have a gift, you don't know why you have a gift, you can be grateful to it, grateful to God or to nature, whatever and I just progressed very fast. I didn't think anything of it, just enjoyed it.
PAGEYou, I guess, at the age of 16 won second prize at the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Do you remember that? Was that a big event?
ASHKENAZYYes, of course I do. That was quite a big thing for me. Nobody expected that I would actually -- I was 17 actually. And the following year when I was 18, I won first prize in the Brussels competition, which was a very difficult one. That was called Rene Elizabeth de Belgique Competition, so amazing.
PAGEAnd did you have to work hard to learn the piano or was it very easy for you?
ASHKENAZYOh, it's impossible to say what's easy, what's not. Some things were easy for me, some things not. My hands are not very big hands so some things I couldn't play and didn't play. It's impossible to give you an answer on that.
PAGEYou know, your hands look pretty normal to me, but you're saying because they were smaller, some things were easier or harder to play?
ASHKENAZYWell, yes, I can go into all the technicalities of it, but of course there are things that would be, for me, almost impossible to play. For instance, Franz Liszt, the great pianist, had huge hands. For instance, Van Cliburn has big hands too and Richter, a great Russian pianist. Mine are small so some things I couldn't play.
PAGEI think you've talked about when the Soviets wanted you to play Tchaikovsky and you thought that would be difficult for you.
ASHKENAZYWell, Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, which was quite of an obligatory piece, I said to the minister of culture -- at that time, it was a lady. I said, you know, I really shouldn't participate because my hands are not good. She couldn't understand that. What do you mean your hands are not good for Tchaikovsky? So I stopped, I quit, I had to play.
PAGEWell, in fact, we have a clip here of you playing Tchaikovsky, clip number three, playing with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1990. Let's listen to just a bit of that.
PAGESo you say perhaps yours hands are too small for Tchaikovsky, but that sounds pretty good to me.
ASHKENAZYWell, thank you, but there are some passages there that I almost couldn't play. I managed, but it was very difficult.
PAGEAnd I wonder, you talked about the minister of culture wanting you to play this conductor regardless. How much pressure was there as a musician under Soviet rule?
ASHKENAZYTremendous pressure, in this particular case because Van Cliburn won the first Tchaikovsky competition. It was a great problem for the Ministry of Culture tete-a-tete so they had to have a Soviet pianist winning the second one. That's why they were so intent on getting all the pianists and I didn't want to participate because I already had my career. As I told you, I already won a very important competition in the West and I had to play again to win the Tchaikovsky competition. It was a shame really.
PAGEAnd did you win?
ASHKENAZYWell, I did. I did get first. I shared the first prize with a British pianist, John Ogden. But it was okay. I was there on the first prize okay.
PAGEYou married an Icelandic pianist, which seems remarkable. How did that come about?
ASHKENAZYShe came to study. She studied with the same professor I studied with in the Moscow Conservatory so we met and we got married a few months after she came to Moscow.
PAGEAnd how long have you been married now?
ASHKENAZYOnly 51 years.
PAGEAnd you know, you've written about when you finally went to the West that what you did was you bought all these albums of music.
PAGEOh yes, well, I love music very much. In the Soviet Union, there weren't so many recordings of all the greatest world music and not so many scores to be bought. So when I came to the West, when I started travelling to the West, first to Belgium, then to West Germany, then to America, I brought suitcases full of LPs of course and scores, too. So I became an object of envy from many musicians in Moscow and they borrowed things from me.
PAGEWhy were these things hard to get in the Soviet Union?
ASHKENAZYWell, we should ask the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They had other priorities.
PAGEYou had a minder with you many times when you travelled?
ASHKENAZYOh yes, always.
PAGEAnd I know that, at one point, you were on your first visit to the United States way back in 1958...
PAGE...and your minder said that you were not nationalistic enough on the tour?
ASHKENAZYWell, he had to produce a report on the trip and on my behavior. And in his report, he said that I never showed pride in being a Soviet citizen while in America and I was interested in modern art more than music and so I was under pressure when we came back. The Ministry of Culture decided that I'm not very good as a Soviet citizen and I shouldn't go abroad for a few years. That's how it was in my country.
PAGEAnd you finally settled in London, but not exactly defecting. How did you come to settle in London?
ASHKENAZYOh, no. It's a long story, but in a few words, my wife who is actually an Icelandic lady, she always lived in London from a very early age. And when I had a tour arranged by the Soviets in the UK, it was not very easy to make sure that my wife could follow me. Finally, they let her follow me, but after a few days of delays. And we were very upset about it and we thought, well, we might as well stay in England so we won't worry anymore going there and back. It's a long story and I can't take all of your time for that one.
PAGEBut did you still consider yourself a Soviet citizen?
ASHKENAZYNo, no, Soviet citizen, no, no. I don't think so. I consider myself a Russian, yes, Soviet, no.
PAGEYeah, did you still consider yourself a Russian citizen?
ASHKENAZYYes, yes, well, I'm born there. I got my musical education there. My mother was very Russian. My father was Jewish, my mother Russian. She christened me in the Russian Orthodox Church so I'm a Christian. And my country will always stay in me absolutely to the moment I die. But I benefited so much from being in the West, you can't imagine. No words will suffice to tell you how much.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll talk about your experiences in the West. We'll continue our conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazy, the noted pianist and conductor.
PAGEWe'll take some of your calls. Our phone lines are open 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to email@example.com Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Vladimir Ashkenazy, the noted pianist and conductor. You're now in the United States traveling with the European Youth Orchestra. You have a long association with this group.
ASHKENAZYYes. Well, yeah, it's already about -- the orchestra's actually about 30 years old and I conducted them for the first time probably about 15 years ago or so. I can't remember -- maybe 20. I conduct so many concerts with them. And now they made me kind of the music director.
PAGEAnd why do you continue your association with this group? What does it mean to you?
ASHKENAZYBecause I enjoy very much the contact with the young people. They are so spontaneous. They are there because they want to be there. You know, the competition for each place in the orchestra is unbelievable. Sometimes about 50 people have auditions for one place, you know.
PAGEAnd you've been working with this young youth orchestra for 15 years or so. Has it changed over the 15 years, students' attitudes toward classical music or their approach to it?
ASHKENAZYOh, no. The attitude of classical music doesn't change. It's very intense and all those youngsters who want to play there, they live for it. But I think the level is rising all the time. That's my feeling now.
PAGEAnd you'll be performing here in Washington soon?
ASHKENAZYYes, we're playing that on the 15th of this month in the Kennedy Center. I played in Washington many times and never forget my first concert with Patrick Hayes who presented me, the Washington Performing Arts Society. He was a wonderful gentleman.
PAGEAnd when was your first performance in Washington?
ASHKENAZYMy first was in '58. Can you imagine? That was with the National Symphony and with Mitchell conducting at that time. I played the Chopin Concerto. And many years after that, Patrick Hayes of the Washington Performing Arts Society, he presents me in recitals in Constitution Hall before Kennedy Center was open.
PAGEYes, two wonderful settings. Let's listen for just a moment to the European Union Youth Orchestra. They're playing "Dance of the Knights" from the spring tour in 2008.
PAGESuch a magnificent piece of music. What do you think when you hear that piece which you are conducting?
ASHKENAZYWhat do I think what?
PAGEWhat do you hear when you listen to a recording of yourself conducting that piece of music. What comes to you?
ASHKENAZYWell, do I know what I'm listening to, but together with good direction whether it makes sense or not, that's what I'm listening -- to my performances 'cause I'm very sensitive whether I've done a good job or not.
PAGESo when you're performing, is it hard to listen to the performances of yourself as a soloist?
ASHKENAZYYes, very hard because I'm very critical of myself. So very difficult. I always find some kind of fault, why couldn't I do that passage a bit better, you know.
PAGEYou began conducting in 1972. What's the difference in kind of the musical pleasure of conducting versus performing on the piano yourself?
ASHKENAZYWell, the difference is very important and I think most of musicians realize it, but non-musicians might not. When you play the piano or if you're a violinist soloist or cellist soloist, everything depends on you, what you're producing, every note. When you conduct, you have a collaboration with many people sitting in front of you and that's a totally different state of mind, a totally different attitude.
ASHKENAZYMusic is kind of the same. Musical roles, musical important things are the same of course. But here you're alone when you play the piano. Nobody can help you. With orchestra it is a collective effort. You see, it's different. People help you. Usually, orchestra musicians who like -- especially the like they help you. It's quite different. It's the same and different.
PAGEWhen you listen to a recording, can you tell who the conductor is?
ASHKENAZYNo, I wouldn't be able to, no.
PAGENo. But do you think it's different if you're playing the same piece of music with one great conductor and another great conductor, but different? Is the music different?
ASHKENAZYEven when I play a soloist, I'm conducting, if that's what you mean.
PAGEYeah, well, let's say that you're playing a solo. You've done solos with many different conductors. Does it sound different depending on the conductor?
ASHKENAZYOh, of course, it does, yes. And you're grateful when the conductor is doing what you think should be done, yes.
PAGEAnd what made you decide to make the jump to add conducting as well as playing the piano?
ASHKENAZYI never had a decision of this kind absolutely. It happened by itself somehow. There was a chance at some point to conduct almost an amateur orchestra because my father-in-law was a conductor too. Why don't you conduct, you love orchestra music so much? So I tried. It was very good. And then there was another occasion I thought I'd do it. But I had no plan to become a conductor, not at all. It just happened. So it was inevitable that I would have to stand at the podium and conduct.
PAGEAnd did you just learn by doing or did you get some training to help you become a conductor?
ASHKENAZYNo. I went the difficult rather self teaching sort of thing, yes.
PAGEDid you -- did your family always listen to classical music when you were growing up?
ASHKENAZYNo. My father was a pianist, but in light music, not classical music. My mother was not a musician.
PAGEAnd so why do you think that this is the music to which you are so strongly drawn?
ASHKENAZYHeaven knows. It just had to happen. I don't know.
PAGEHere we have a question from a Tweet actually from CoolMCJazz saying, "I wonder if you think classical music is for everyone." And he adds, "Is that achievable?"
ASHKENAZYOf course, it's for everyone. You know, I had a very interesting case or maybe it's too long to tell it, but I'll tell you.
PAGEIt's all right. Please tell us.
ASHKENAZYWell, a friend of mine wanted to introduce serious -- I don't call it classical music. I call it serious music. But it doesn't matter, classical music. I wanted to introduce it to students in a school, students about 14, 15 years old. There was no provision for it. He asked the director to let him have one hour a week. So he introduced it one hour a week. Half of the class left that weren't interested and half stayed, 20 people stayed. And they stayed for another week and another week, another year, another year and became music lovers. And the others, oh, it's only rubbish. We don't want it.
ASHKENAZYSo what is the answer? I can't give you an answer, but it's very, very important area of our conscience, I think.
PAGEWell, of our conscience.
PAGEWhat does that mean?
ASHKENAZYWell, we have to express ourselves somehow in our lives. And this is one of the highest expressions I think we achieved in our few thousand years of civilized history. And what that's gonna tell you, it's one of the highest elements, I think, of our existence. If we can express ourselves in sounds, it's not so bad. In the words -- well, I'm the social, but this is beyond anything. And it elevates us to -- and those peoples who were interested in our music, they did better in all other subjects by the way. And it's a fact of life. And it's been proved in other schools as well.
PAGEThat classical music helps you in any number of ways.
ASHKENAZYYes, because it elevates you to very high heights.
PAGEYou've played so many composers. Do you have a favorite?
ASHKENAZYNot really. I can't tell you. Impossible.
PAGEChopin, I would think, might be your favorite.
ASHKENAZYOne of them, of course. He was a genius. Absolutely.
PAGEYou know, we have a clip of you playing Chopin. And maybe we could play just a bit of that.
PAGEAnd of course, it's hard for our listeners to see this, but while we're listening to you play this magnificent piece of music, you're making faces and saying we should stop it.
ASHKENAZYWell, it's difficult to listen to oneself. You always find something that you could have done better.
PAGEDo you find something in this passage that you could've done better? It seems hard to imagine.
ASHKENAZYI don't know. I already forgot what it was.
PAGEWell, we've got a lot of people waiting on the phones to ask you questions or to make comments. So let's go to Daria. She's calling us from East Lansing, Mich. Daria, hi. Thanks for giving us a call.
DARIAHello, Mr. Ashkenazy.
DARIAYou have provided one of the most memorable moments of my concert experience. I remember you played in Michigan State in the late '60s with Itzak Perlman. You played the Beethoven (word?) Sonata and I still remember that experience.
ASHKENAZYOh, thank you.
DARIAAnd since I'm an amateur pianist, I have a lot of your CDs and I try to learn. So thank you very much.
ASHKENAZYThank you. Thank you.
PAGEAll right, Daria. Thank you so much for your call.
PAGELet's go to Birmingham, Ala. and talk to John. John, hi, you're on the air. Yes, John, are you there? I'm sorry, something's wrong with that call. We'll try just one more. Calvin is calling us from Houston. Calvin, can you hear me?
PAGEYes, hi. Please go ahead.
CALVINI just wanted to thank Mr. Ashkenazy for all the recordings he -- I have his complete Chopin recording and I think they're wonderful and they have meant so much to me. And I also wanted to ask if he knew Shostakovich, he's been such a champion of Shostakovich's music. And I wonder if he actually knew him and if Shostakovich taught him anything about interpreting his music. Thank you so much.
PAGEAll right, Calvin. Thank you for your call.
ASHKENAZYThank you very much. Well, I'm very fond of Shostakovich's music. He didn't write too much for the piano, but I did record his Preludes and Fugues of course, which is a great cycle. I've done all of his symphonies of course with the symphony orchestras. And I also played his trio for himself actually with my friends, violinists and cellists. Went to his apartment and played his trio for him and asked if he liked it. He said, very good, very good.
PAGEDid he give you any tips, don't do that, why don't you do this?
ASHKENAZYNo. We asked him, could you please tell us what we should do that would -- no, no, very good, very good. Nothing to say.
PAGECalvin, anything else?
CALVINNo, I mean, just how pleased and honored I am to be able to tell Mr. Ashkenazy myself what his music has meant to me.
ASHKENAZYWell, thank you very much. Thank you for being so fond of Shostakovich, too. I am very fond of his music.
PAGECalvin, thanks for your call. Let's go to John, he's calling us from Ann Arbor. Hi, John.
JOHNI, many years ago in the New York Times, read a wonderful article, I think, in a weekend issue, based on an interview with you in which you talked about Soviet reality. And it was, for me, as a special from that area, it was extremely interesting. I was very pleased to hear you mention that you're a Christian and also consider yourself a Russian. Here in Ann Arbor I head what's called "Russia with Love" that works with a joint Danish Lutheran Russian Orthodox outreach of the poor in Moscow. And also we've been involved in trying to help the Russian church particularly in the medical area.
JOHNI think it's very, very important and I think that Ashkenazy could play a role here to make Americans aware that it's important for us to participate in the healing of that country after the terrible Soviet period.
PAGEAll right, John. Thank you so much for your call.
ASHKENAZYThank you very -- I appreciate very much what you're saying.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's take another call. Go to Sarasota, Fla. and talk to David. David, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVIDHi. Vladimir, I'm very honored to be talking to you.
DAVIDFirst of all, I don't think the Soviet Union was such a bad place because it gave birth to Vladimir Ashkenazy and Richter and Gilels , just to name a few and so it couldn't be really that bad a place. But, Vladimir, the first time I heard you -- I'm an amateur pianist myself. First time I heard you was the A Minor Mozart Piano Sonata and I think it's one of the best renditions. And I think the only one that compares to that is Gilels.
DAVIDI've also heard you play -- well, I have the whole set of Scriabin and I would like for you to tell us a little bit about Scriabin, how you feel about his music. And finally about Richter, that big enigma, he's probably the best pianist in the world. What is your opinion of him? Did you have any contact with him?
PAGEAll right, David. Thanks for your call.
ASHKENAZYYes, absolutely. I played for him a couple of times and I can't say we were friends because I was a different generation. But I admired his playing and his attitude toward music tremendously. I've been to so many of his concerts. And once he needed to prepare some concertos. And his friend who always played second piano for him in his preparation wasn't well. And he asked me to play on the second piano for him the orchestral part. And of course, I was very nervous. Can you imagine Richter asking you to play for him?
ASHKENAZYThat's how I met him for the first time. I played for him on the second piano. And he liked what I did. It was (word?) Second Piano Concerto. Can you imagine that? I've never heard it, never saw the music, but I managed to be with him. For three days we played it and then he invite me to his premier of this concerto of -- I mean, the first performance in his life in Moscow. And I went to that concert. And after that, he asked me many times to play for him.
PAGEWe have an email from Lillian who says, "When I was four years old, I was listening to records of Sergei Rachmaninoff concertos with my mom while pretending to play the piano." And Lillian has a question, "How do you feel classical music and musical education has changed since you were in school?"
ASHKENAZYWell, it's very difficult to say. I'm not one of those who makes such sweeping sort of assessments of things. I hope that our classical music will stay with us forever, but who knows? But I can see that many more people are interested. The radio stations are interested. This music now is spread all over the world, of course. People from countries where you would never think classical music would be very important. People come from there, very good pianists, conductors and so on. Let us hope it will stay with us forever. It's very important.
PAGEYou know, here in the United States, we've seen cutbacks in a lot of arts programs in public schools for budgetary concern or because of concerns about testing on other subjects. I wonder if that's of concern to you.
PAGECutbacks in music and arts education in public schools here in the United States.
ASHKENAZYYes. Well, I think it should be given a lot of -- you should remember that serious music, as I call classical music, is one of the most important elements in our existence. And it elevates us to such heights you can't imagine. And without it I think we'd be much, much poorer.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Stay with us.
PAGEIn the studio with me this hour, Vladimir Ashkenazy, the noted pianist and conductor. He is currently on tour with the European Youth Orchestra, which he's been the conductor for more than a decade. You know, I wonder if we could start with just hearing a bit of a Beethoven piano sonata that you played. Let's listen to it.
PAGEThat is "Beethoven's Piano Sonata Number 23 in F Minor". You know here's an interesting email we get from Marty, who writes, "I was a piano tuner and technician in New York City. And I know how, of all instrumentalists, pianists depend on the care, usually provided by someone else, of a rather complicated instrument. I wonder if you would talk about the state of pianos in Russia when you were growing up. And if he worked with any piano tuners to prepare his instruments." And he wonders also, "Did you travel with a piano when you were performing?"
ASHKENAZYNo. After the war the situation was terrible in the Soviet Union, absolutely terrible. There were almost no pianos. Soviet Armed Forces brought a lot of things from Germany, some Bechsteins, but nothing really terribly good. So we had a very difficult situation in the conservatory, really difficult. Steinways, almost nothing. And at some point when the Soviets decided to organize a Tchaikovsky competition they realized that they can't bring all the foreign participants that will play on terrible instruments. So they decided to order Steinways from Hamburg and New York -- no, basically from Hamburg, I think. And finally we started having good instruments. That was very difficult.
PAGEHere's a kind of related question from Sang Mi, who writes, "I was wondering if you could talk about different pianos you've played in different concert halls all over the world. Do you have a favorite brand of piano?"
ASHKENAZYWell, I'm a Steinway artist. And Steinway's still the best piano in the world. Very close to them now is Yamaha, a Japanese very good piano, too. But it's just getting there. And Steinway's still the supreme commander.
PAGENow, Sang Mi also writes that she heard that Mr. Isaac Stern, in his book, talked about the difficulty of finding an adequate piano in Beijing when he first visited there. And wonders if you have any similar experiences while on tour.
ASHKENAZYWell, yes. He was quite right. At that time in China you didn't have anything of Steinway. I played a recital in '79, I think, in Shanghai. It was a terrible piano at that time. Now they have everything. They are so rich now. In their conservatories there's a couple of Steinways in each room, in each practicing room. It's unbelievable.
PAGESo when you're on tour, say in that experience in 1979, and the pianos are terrible what do you do?
ASHKENAZYDo what you can do. Do your best in whatever there is. Nothing you can do.
PAGELet's go back to the phones and let some of our listeners ask questions. George is calling us from Boston. Hi, George. I'm afraid we're having a little trouble getting George. I wonder if someone else can get George on the line. Well, I’m sorry, George. We have a little computer malfunction here. We'll hope to get you on the air to ask your question shortly. Mr. Ashkenazy, I know that you suffer from arthritis now.
ASHKENAZYA little bit, no, not really, no.
PAGELittle bit. And so it doesn't affect your ability to play?
ASHKENAZYNot really, no.
PAGEAnd do you still like to play? Do you still like to be on tour?
ASHKENAZYYes. I do play. I don't play solo piano anymore. I play with my son on two pianos, basically. First of all, because at a certain time in your life I think you decide if you can play as well as you always wanted to play, maybe you don't play solo. Besides, I have so much to conduct, so many concerts to conduct it would be almost impossible to divide the time the way you would want to follow piano activity.
PAGEI'm so sorry that our phones have gone down. So I’m gonna ask George's question because I have a little sign here that indicates what it is. And he says he's an aspiring musician in Boston and he asks, "How often do you learn new music and do composers inspire you?" Do you still learn new music?
PAGENew music, yeah.
ASHKENAZYYou mean contemporary music?
PAGEAnd music that you didn't know before. I suppose it would have to be contemporary, yes.
ASHKENAZYNot necessarily. Of course if it's just on new music I might not have come across before, then yes, there are some pieces that I never knew they existed or maybe neglected something. So there's always something to be inspired by. And in the music that's composed today, of course there's some very talented people who compose something that you would like to be a part of. So it's always ongoing situation.
PAGEAnd John, who was calling us from Austin, Texas asks, "When conducting a soloist who makes different interpretive choices than you had, what's that like?"
ASHKENAZYWell, in a way it's very easy. It depends on the viability of it. And on how convincing the interpretation is because I don't think that my interpretation is the last word in music. I enjoy other people's interpretations. If it's convincing I'm very happy to be a part of it. And when I accompany I enjoy it very much. And I think, oh, I should have done maybe something like that, too. So...
PAGEIs there ever a clash, though, between -- or perhaps when you're a soloist, if the conductor you're working with says, no, I don't think that's quite right. It should be this.
ASHKENAZYI don't remember any tragic circumstance like this, no.
PAGEWell, perhaps they were very differential to you.
ASHKENAZYOh, I don't know. No. It's very rare if anything like this happens. I cannot remember, but there are cases like this. I had a friend who refused to accompany somebody. Said, I couldn't stand his playing and said, I don't want to accompany this interpretation. I could never do that. If you're already rehearsing, you're already agreed to do something, don't get out of it. And you do your best and try to save the situation.
PAGEYou talked earlier in this hour about touring the United States for the first time in 1958 and then not being allowed to tour for a few years because of the feeling you hadn't shown enough nationalism on that tour.
PAGEBut then you were allowed back in to tour the United States in October of 1962, which was a remarkable period, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I wonder what that was like.
ASHKENAZYWell, you know, that's really very funny because -- not funny at all, actually, because of the crisis and of course, Soviet rockets were going to Cuba. And that Khrushchev, he was just a peasant, you know. In any case, I remember very well that I asked the Minister of Culture in Moscow to let my wife accompany me. And that was agreed, but usually they sent Soviet artists traveling abroad with an accompanying member from Minister of Culture or something like that.
PAGESomeone to keep tabs on you?
ASHKENAZYYes, exactly. Just to, exactly, keep tabs on me. And this time the American embassy gave me and my wife the American visas and the lady who was supposed to accompany us, they said the visa is not ready for her. Of course, they didn't want her to go because of the Cuban crisis, of course. I'm sure it was because of that. So we traveled by ourselves, my wife and I. It was very, very pleasant, I must say. And when I played in Boston I remember terribly well it was quite a good review about my performance. And the reviewer said, can you imagine, here we are facing the Soviet rockets just near our shores and the Soviet pianist is just playing for us here? That's very funny.
PAGEDo you read your reviews? Did you read your reviews when you were perhaps younger and starting out?
ASHKENAZYYes. Not often, but sometimes, yes.
PAGEAnd did you think the reviewers made sense or did you often disagree with them?
ASHKENAZYNeither. They very often make sense. But whether I agree or disagree with them, it's difficult. And other individuals have different concepts of what should be played or should be performed or whatever it is. Sometimes you get upset if they didn't like your performance, but then it's not the end of the world. You think, well, next time I play maybe he will like it, who knows, you know. It shouldn't upset you too much.
PAGESo you seem very easy going about all this. And I wonder, are you in fact pretty easy going or is this something you've acquired with the wisdom of age?
ASHKENAZYYou mean, in my profession?
PAGEYes. In reviewers or alternate theories or ways to interpret a piece of music. You seem very easy with people who might do it a different way.
ASHKENAZYProbably I am easy, yes. Because I don't think there's one completely comprehensive interpretation of anything. And I doubt that if Beethoven and Chopin listened to us they would say, well, this is absolutely how it should be. They probably would have enjoyed different attitude, as long as it's convincing, as long as it makes sense, music and artistic sense.
PAGEYou know, I read that there is one musical dream you have that you have not yet fulfilled, which is, I think, to conduct an opera.
ASHKENAZYThat wasn't a dream of mine, ever. Opera was not my priority, generally, in my musical education, so to speak. But there's some wonderful music in many operas in the world. And actually I'm doing the "Queen of Spades" in this season in Australia in a concert performance. And I look forward to it. I know it so well, but I never thought I would conduct it. Well, I will conduct it. Why not?
PAGEWe have an emailer who asks, "Please tell us how you practice." Do you still need to practice?
ASHKENAZYI practice, yes, everyday.
PAGEYou practice every day?
PAGEAnd how do you practice?
PAGELike, do you do scales? Do you play pieces of music?
ASHKENAZYNo. I don't need scales now. Just I learn new pieces of music that I plan to record or something like that.
PAGEAnd how long do you practice every day?
ASHKENAZYIt depends on circumstances. Today I probably could do a couple of hours, but when I’m at home, not on tour, I could do four hours. After four or five it becomes a bit too tiresome, too difficult.
PAGEBut, you know, some people I think would be amazed to hear that you continue to practice because they think you must already know how to do everything.
ASHKENAZYBut there's always new repertoire that I haven't played before that I'm planning to record or I play with my son on two pianos. So there's always something to learn. Another of my sons is a clarinet player. And I'm recording with him, too. So that's some new pieces, too. Always something new to learn.
PAGEAnd, for instance, here in Washington you're staying at a hotel.
PAGEDo you have a piano in your suite?
ASHKENAZYNo, no. I go to the Kennedy Center and practice there in artist's room.
ASHKENAZYThey're very nice to me and they let me practice there.
PAGEWell, that's nice. Here's a question from Jodi, who writes us from Texas. "Please ask him what advice he would give an aspiring pianist on a selection of a university-level program." The key question for me is, is the school as important as the passion of the student?
ASHKENAZYI would need to know the student to answer this question. It's impossible to just guess what the student's like, what level it is, what is the aspiration, what the possibilities. I can't answer this question without knowing the student. Sorry, I apologize for that.
PAGEWhen an aspiring pianist comes to you and says, what should I do, how should I proceed, is there advice that you give them? Is there a key piece of advice you have for an aspiring musician?
ASHKENAZYYes. My basic advice is this, you love music, be in music. Do your best, express what you think music should express, but don't look for a career because what is important is that you love music. If you become successful, wonderful, if not, that's nothing. Because you love music, be with it. That's the main thing.
PAGEI’m Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". We're here talking with Vladimir, I'm sorry, I've mispronounced that, Vladimir Ashkenazy who's here with us. He's in Washington on tour with the European Union Youth Orchestra. And we're so pleased to have him here. Here's a question from Stan, who writes us from Cleveland. "Why isn't anyone composing classical music today?" Now, would you say that's true? Is that a true question?
ASHKENAZYWell, I'm not sure what the person means by composing classical music today. What does classical mean for this person? I don't know. And in any way, the music that we call classical, in inverted commas, has undergone unbelievable cataclysms in the last few hundred years, of course. We don't know where it's going now. What is today, as we would call contemporary classical so to speak, music? I don't know anymore what it is. Maybe there's an end of it, maybe there isn't, maybe there'll be a new discovery, but I'm not sure where it's going. And I don't know if any of my colleagues will know where it's going.
PAGEWe have an emailer who asks if there is any other kind of music that you really like and like to listen to.
ASHKENAZYWell, of course. Yes. I don't like pop music, I must confess, because I think there's very little substance in that. I very often enjoy very good jazz, like Andre Previn for instance. I enjoy some other music. I can't quite describe it, but you know if there is a tremendous talent. And, for instance, The Beatles, early Beatles. I think it was wonderful sincere music of young people. And it was very touching and I liked it very much.
PAGEAt the time you liked it?
ASHKENAZYOh, yes. Even now, some of their early songs were absolutely gorgeous.
PAGEI think The Beatles would be pleased to hear that, The Beatles who are still with us. Is there a Beatles song you like the best?
ASHKENAZYYesterday, I think. The titles I don't remember.
ASHKENAZYI remember some of the early songs. Actually, I met Paul McCartney a few weeks ago for the first time. And I told him that I liked his music. He was very sweet.
PAGEWhere did you meet Paul McCartney?
ASHKENAZYIn London. He came to one of the concerts I was conducting.
PAGEHow interesting. Here's a question from Mary Jane who writes us from upstate New York. She says, "Are there pieces of music you've had to perform that you did not like and how did you prepare yourself to play or conduct them?"
ASHKENAZYWell, usually I'm quite polite. If I don't like somebody's playing or a soloist with me maybe, I'm very careful. I try to encourage people, try to make them do better. And if I attended a concert I didn't like, I'll be very careful not to say too many negative things. I sort of avoid it, you know. But if the person will ask me later, then I would offer him some kind criticism or something like that. I try to be civilized.
PAGEYes, you seem very sincere. Vladimir Ashkenazy, thank you so much for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're going to leave with the Rachmaninov Symphony 2, which you are conducting. Thank you so much for being with us.
ASHKENAZYThank you, too. It's a pleasure.
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