Daily Yomiuri [Tokyo]
By Mikiko Miyakawa

The NHK Symphony Orchestra celebrated the debut of Vladimir Ashkenazy as its music director with excellent performances of three Beethoven pieces at Suntory Hall in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday [9 October].
Following the Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60, the orchestra gave a dramatic performance of the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, earning thunderous applause from an audience who filled the hall despite the powerful typhoon outside.
Succeeding Charles Dutoit, who held the position from 1998 to 2003, Ashkenazy became the second music director for the orchestra and will remain in the post for at least three years.
In an interview shortly after his arrival in Tokyo last week, Ashkenazy praised the orchestra, calling it "first-class" and up to international standards.
"It's a great orchestra, so it's very stimulating because I know it'll be so easy to work with them," said Ashkenazy, who also is known as one of the most brilliant pianists in the world today. "They are very concentrated and very keen musicians."
Under the baton of Ashkenazy, the orchestra already played Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in a performance in Villach, Austria, during its five-nation European tour in July.
"They had a lot of German conductors before, so they are well prepared for German music," he said. "So it's very easy to do. Not every orchestra does it." For instance, the orchestra's honorary conductor laureate, Wolfgang Sawallisch, who was honorary conductor from 1967 to 1994, played a lot of Beethoven.
Ashkenazy thinks the orchestra received a good education, and "it stays" as he puts it. "(Their performance is) very serious, very intense and very expressive," he said.
Born in Gorky in the Soviet Union [now Nizhny Novgorod in Russia] in July 1937, Ashkenazy devoted the first part of his musical life to piano. His parents were both pianists, and he started playing piano at the age of 6 under their instruction.
Having studied at the Central School of Music and the Moscow Conservatory, he grew into an outstanding pianist, winning second prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1955 and the gold medal in the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels in 1956.
In 1961 he married Icelandic pianist Sofia Johannsdottir, who was studying in Moscow. They have five children.
He won first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962. In March 1963, he was sent by the Soviet government on a tour in Britain, where he made his London debut at Festival Hall. He defected at the end of his tour, cutting himself off from any apparent hope of ever returning to Moscow.
In retaliation, the Soviet government forbade his father to play the piano at government functions, but by the standards of the day his parents got off lightly.
In 1971 he moved to Reykjavik and won Icelandic citizenship the following year.
Beginning in the 1970s, Ashkenazy became increasingly active as a conductor, holding positions such as principal guest conductor with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, music director with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, principal guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra and chief conductor and music director with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.
In 1998 he took the post of chief conductor at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. During his tenure with that orchestra, which ended last year, he undertook a broad range of tours, recordings and special projects.
It was in October 2000 that Ashkenazy conducted the NHK Symphony Orchestra for the first time. Since then, Ashkenazy has worked with the orchestra several times in concerts and on recordings. His first CD with the orchestra was released in November last year. "So, it's not something new," he said. "I know what they expect and I'm very happy."
The maestro appreciates the appointment as the orchestra's music director. "It's a very good position from the viewpoint of music-making," he said. "Very good conditions for rehearsals, different repertoire and very good halls, as you know," he said. "But the main thing is the commitment of the musicians. When you do something, Japanese people always try to do their best."
Despite his soft-spoken and frank delivery, Ashkenazy certainly is an artist with a high degree of self-discipline. "(Commitment is) what one values very much. This is the very strong signal that I get from the Japanese mentality ... (It's) like my character ... no pretense, no half-way.
"We know we're not perfect, nobody is perfect. But at least you do your best to get close to 100 percent if possible," he said.
Apart from his post as music director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, he serves as the music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra and as conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
As a pianist and conductor, Ashkenazy visited Japan a number of times, and while in Japan, he said he feels at home. Coincidentally, his sister ó his only sibling ó has been teaching the Russian language here for a long time.
The maestro thinks Japanese audiences are quite knowledgeable about classical music despite the art form's rather short history in this country compared with Europe. "I found (this) wonderful, because I think it reaches your inner world, and that's very important," he said.
During the European tour in July, the orchestra performed one piece each by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Peter Maxwell Davies and Toru Takemitsu.
"I like Takemitsu very much. I would like to do more (of his compositions)," Ashkenazy said, adding that he has the complete recordings of his works.
Ashkenazy met Takemitsu once in Tokyo and asked him to write a piece for piano and orchestra for him to play. Though the composer agreed, the plan was never realized. Takemitsu died of cancer in 1996. "He looked very fragile. I was very sorry to lose him as a composer, and also because I wanted a piece from him at the same time," the maestro said.
Apart from his career as a conductor, Ashkenazy still is active as a pianist. He has plans to record Mozart concertos with the orchestra at the end of this month, and is working on Bach's Das wohltemperierte Klavier on his own. "So, I practice every day," he said.
Playing the piano is a rather independent activity, but as a conductor you have to inspire others, he said.
Four decades have passed since he left his home country, and the end of the Soviet era has enabled him to again perform in Russia.
During a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Yurakucho, Tokyo, on Friday [8 October], Ashkenazy said his emigration to Britain gave him one priority ó to study the history and government of his own country, as he did not have free access to information before.
Now, the maestro is patiently observing the transformation process of his home country.
"Russia was under the one-party system for so many decades," he said. "It is very difficult for this huge country to make a jump into a full democracy and a free economic situation. It takes a few generations maybe. Don't press too much for that. It is a long process."

The Yomiuri Shimbun. All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2004

 

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