Thursday, 23 October 2008

VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY on Piano Competitions: An Interview

Practise, practise, practise

Room 646 at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel is also called the Music Room. It is a little but luxuriously decorated suite with a Yamaha grand piano, and that was where this interview with VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY, chairman of the jury at the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, was conducted.

You don’t make it a regular habit to judge piano competitions, do you?
Frankly, I am not interested in competitions. Besides, time is precious. I 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. Poland and Warsaw 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. It was easy, we all agreed that no first prize would be awarded that year.

Maestro Ashkenazy still practises regularly
on the piano even if he does not perform.

If so, how did you end up judging this competition in Hong Kong?

What about Hong Kong? It’s a very peculiar but true story. Sometime in the 1980s, I was performing Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 with the Hong Kong Philhamonic 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 asked me if they had an international piano competition in Hong Kong, and whether I would agree to be President of the jury. I said “Yes”, and then thought that event would not ever happen. But some 20 years later, they had planned the first Hong Kong International Piano Competition in 2005! I made a promise, and so kept my promise. To do otherwise would have been dishonest.

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

There are fewer pianists in this year, but the playing is at 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 effort of young musicians in Asia.

Playing Rachmaninov in Hong Kong

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

The rules and regulations 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 Bach Partitas and Goldberg Variations, late Beethoven, Schubert and Prokofiev Sonatas are the building stones of our culture, and are the most demanding in the area of musical communication. There is no second rate music, which may be easier to play and understand. We 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, but to judge their potential in tackling important repertoire.

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

Members of the jury: Vladimir Ashkenazy
talks with Eleanor Wong, while Gary Graffman
& Cristina Ortiz slurp on cup noodles.

The Hong Kong jury is one of the most prestigious assembled in the history of all competitions. Tell us more.
The jury is formed by people who are committed musicians, all of whom know so much about music. This includes many 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 a little conference.

Your wife is an interesting addition to the jury.

We had several cancellations among the judges. Geoffrey Norris, Vladimir Krainev, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Maria Joao Pires and Paul Badura-Skoda could not come for various reasons. So Anabella Freris invited my wife Thorunn (Dody to her close friends) to be a judge as well, and she said “Yes”. In February 2009, we would have been married for 48 years! We are 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 play every note without mistake. She is an honest critic who never flatters. After having given a fantastic concert, she would say, “That was good,” and tell me everything that I could improve upon. 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 and develops this gift, there is a chance of making a good career in music.

No comments: