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Revered pianist recalls early life in Soviet Union

Vladimir Ashkenazy in Cambodia as part of The Peace Foundation’s Bridges programme

FOR a longtime legend of the classical music stage, Vladimir Ashkenazy strikes a surprisingly boyish figure in person. The 72-year-old pianist and conductor, dressed in a black jacket over a white polo shirt that matches his snowy-white hair, speaks animatedly about his first visit to Cambodia.

Currently the chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ashkenazy arrived earlier this week as part of Vienna-based International Peace Foundation’s programme Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace. On Tuesday night, along with his sons Dmitri and Vovka, Ashkenazy performed works by the composers Schumann, Ravel and Poulenc to a packed house at Chaktomuk Theatre and met with young Cambodian artists and music students.

Despite the brevity of his three-day visit – Ashkenazy and his sons left for the Philippines on Wednesday – he says Cambodia and its people have left a good impression. “They’re quiet, but I think there’s something very warm inside,” he says.

Ashkenazy, whose distinguished career spans more than four decades, seems like a natural candidate for the Bridges programme, since his own story bridges one of the past century’s deepest divides. Born in the Soviet Union in 1937, Ashkenazy says he came to music at the age of six, under the influence of his father, a Russian-born Jew and amateur pianist, and showed precocious ability.

After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, Ashkenazy found instant success, winning second prize in the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1955 and first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels the following year. After these initial triumphs, what had started off as a fun diversion suddenly became a more serious undertaking. “I never expected it – never,” he says. “So I started practicing. … I knew I had to work very hard and serious to get out whatever nature gave me,” he says.

What was it like for Ashkenazy growing up as a music student in Soviet Russia? Despite the travails of Russian composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich, whose works were constantly vetted for hidden meanings and hints of “formalism”, Ashkenazy said the communist presence at the Moscow Conservatory was minimal. Music students were forced to take two hours of Marxist-Leninist lectures per week, but otherwise there was little that official doctrine could say about the education of classical musicians.

“We were lucky,” he says. “In our area of education – music – what could the communists do, except occasionally make us play Soviet music? And Soviet music wasn’t bad: Shostakovich, Prokofiev – not bad at all!” He adds, “In any other line of education, like history or literature, there was an incredible control; in music, what can they tell you? How to play Beethoven, or Bach?”

Ashkenazy recalls meeting – and playing for – Shostakovich while he was in Russia, describing the famously conflicted composer as “unbelievably kind” despite his volatile relationship with the government: “He was like a scared animal because he was mistreated by the Soviet authorities so much, but he was so humane and so modest.”

However, other restraints – including tight restrictions on his travel abroad for concerts and competitions – led Ashkenazy to leave the Soviet Union for London in 1963 along with his Icelandic-born wife. As he now describes it, the change could not have come at a better time. Being steeped the Russian musical tradition – anchored by names such as Glink, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov – was central to Ashkenazy’s development, but he says increased exposure to the West was vital in fertilising his approach to music and giving his performances a further dimension.

“When I was growing as a student, I did realise that if I was fed all the time by the Russian mental attitude to music I would be that much poorer than before I opened my eyes to the rest of the world,” he says. “I’m grateful to my fate that at the age of 26 found myself in the West and could absorb everything: the Western attitude to what music is and what it’s supposed to express, from Bach to Beethoven to Schumann to Wagner.”

Ashkenazy did not return to his homeland until 1989, and he has since held a series of triumphant concerts in Russia – a sort of bridge that linked his past to his present, spanning the ramparts of the crumbling Soviet empire. He says the role of music in playing this “bridging” role is vital – a key element of the Bridges program that allowed Ashkenazy to visit Cambodia in the first place.

“Music is the language that can be related to any of our daily expressions and can unite people. The more serious music – not pop – the more serious music we have, the better it is for mankind,” he says.

Ashkenazy expresses especial admiration for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra founded in 1999 by his fellow pianist-turned-conductor Daniel Barenboim, an Argentinean-born Jew, and the late Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said. Made up with players from across the Middle East, the orchestra has played concerts around the world, including in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In The Guardian in July 2008, Barenboim described the orchestra as “a project against ignorance, a project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it”.

As with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Ashkenazy says the Bridges programme seeks to promote a similar form of intercultural understanding. “We can do something positive. If it helps only a few people – a few hundred or a few thousand people – at least we are trying to do something,” he says. “We don’t know – we can’t put our fingers on it – but without music life is not worth living.”

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