Monday 21 January 2013

A Few Words with VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY, Patron of the Chopin Society of Hong Kong


Room 646 at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel is also called the Music Room. It is a luxuriously decorated suite with its own Yamaha grand piano, and that was where this interview (in October 2008) with VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY, President of the jury at the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, was conducted. The maestro was practising the piano part of works for violin and piano by Rachmaninov for a forthcoming recording, and was most gracious for this intrusion of his time and space.

You do not make a regular habit of judging piano competitions, do you?

Frankly, I am not interested in competitions. Besides, time is precious. I have however made a few exceptions. About 25 years ago, André Previn asked me to judge in a one-day competition. He is my very good friend, and it was difficult to say no. In 1995, I managed two or three days at the Finals of the Chopin International Piano Competition. Warsaw and Poland are very close to my heart. It is a very cultured country – the land of Chopin, Szymanowski and Mickiewicz – and that was where I made my first trip abroad. That was easy, we all agreed that no first prize would be awarded that year.

If so, how did you end up becoming the chief judge of this piano competition in Hong Kong?

What about Hong Kong? It is a very peculiar but true story. Sometime during the 1980s, I was performing Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic when I was introduced to Drs Andrew and Anabella Freris. They had just moved to Hong Kong, and were very friendly to me. They invited me to be the Patron of the Chopin Society of Hong Kong. I was impressed by the way they were promoting music, and enhancing cultural life in Hong Kong. They also asked me if they have an international piano competition in Hong Kong and whether I would agree to the President of the jury. I said “Yes”, and then thought that event would not ever happen. But so 20 years later, they had organised the first Hong Kong International Piano Competition in 2005! I had made a promise, and so kept my promise. To do otherwise would have been dishonest.

The Maestro demonstrates Rachmaninov's early piano writing and accompaniment for his rarely performed violin pieces.

What do you think of this year’s competition so far?

They are fewer pianists this year, but the playing is of a higher level. There are four Orientals among the five finalists. Lots of attention is paid to classical music in Korea, China and Japan today, which accounts for this interesting Oriental presence. Spiritual inspiration is high in these exciting young people, and it does not matter where they come from. By judging in Hong Kong, I feel that I am contributing something to the future of music, and to support the efforts of young musicians in Asia.

Did you formulate the rules, regulation and repertoire of this competition?

The rules and regulation were done in consultation with Professor Li Mingqiang (piano pedagogue based in Hong Kong) and Dr Andrew Freris. It was a collective decision as I did not want to act like some Prime Minister!

The required repertoire is extremely important. There is a lot to choose from the prescribed list of set works. Pieces like J.S.Bach’s Partitas and Goldberg Variations, late sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert and Prokofiev are the building stones of our culture, and are the most demanding in the area of musical communication. There is no second-rate music in this repertoire, which may be easier to interpret and understand. We the judges want to know all the aspects of a young person’s musicianship, and whether he understands great music. We do not expect them to be master performers, hut hope to judge their potential in tackling important repertoire.

What about the inclusion as compulsory set pieces shorter works by Sibelius and Albeniz?

About the Sibelius Impromptu and Albeniz Triana (from Iberia), works from the North and the South, we wanted to see whether each performer could infuse something special into what is not regularly performed. Isn’t Triana such a miraculous pieces of music? Such character and imagination, and what a gift of harmonies. This music was not just composed – it just came out on its own. We just heard twelve performances of Triana, and I could hear this twelve times a day for a whole month, and not tire of it!

The jury for the 3rd Hong Kong International Piano Competition. (From L): Vladimir Ashkenazy, Li Mingqiang, Tigran Alikhanov, Peter Frankl, Gary Graffman, Thorunn Ashkenazy, Gabriel Kwok, Cristina Ortiz, Pascal Rogé, Jeremy Siepmann, Eleanor Wong and commissioned composer Howard Blake.

The Hong Kong jury is one of the most prestigious assembled in the history of all piano competitions. Tell us more.

Our jury is formed by people who are committed musicians, all of whom know so much about music.This includes experienced performers like Gary Graffman, Peter Frankl, Pascal Rogé and Cristina Ortiz, who know what it is like being on stage. There are also people who do not perform, like Jeremy Siepmann who is unbelievably experienced on all matters in music. I also hope to include conductors and music critics in future competitions.

The Ashkenazys have an impromptu conference.

Your wife is an interesting addition to the jury. Does she have much experience judging?

We had several cancellations among the judges. Geoffrey Norris, Vladimir Krainev, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Viktoria Postnikova, Maria Joao Pires and Paul Badura-Skoda could not come for various reasons. So Dr Anabella Freris invited my wife Thorunn (Dody to her close friends) to be a judge as well, and she agreed. In February 2009, we would have been married for 48 years! We care very similar in views and tastes, and there are no disagreements. She has an unbelievable memory and can not only remember everything that I play at home, but can also play every note without mistake. She is an honest critic who never flatters. Once after having given a fantastic concert, she told me, “That was good…” and then went on to show me how I could further improve! I could not have a better judge. 

What do you look for in a winner at this competition?

To reiterate, we are judging potential, both musically and artistically. Winning First Prize does not necessarily mean one is ready for a career. If the winners are too young, they have to be careful not to be exploited. In each winner there is a gift, and if he or she works hard to develop this gift, there is a chance of making a good career in music.       

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