Off Stage

Maestro tunes out to be in the zone

Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy (left) is back next month to take on the works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov at a concert.
Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy (above) is back next month to take on the works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov at a concert.PHOTO: KEITH SAUNDERS

Virtuoso pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has spent more than seven decades in music. He started playing the piano at six years old and still, he has not lost his sense of wonder.

During a 20-minute phone interview from Switzerland, where he now lives, the Russian-born maestro tells Life: "Music is very difficult to explain. It's not easy to put in words. It is so many things, so many meanings."

Ashkenazy, 78, just last year lent the Singapore Symphony Orchestra his magic touch with a soaring take on Dvorak's Eighth Symphony.

In his comeback next month, he will take on the works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov, alongside Russian pianist Alexei Volodin. He is married to musician Thorunn and they have five children.

What made you fall in love with music?

From my childhood, I was very taken with many great people - Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninov. I remember feeling very strongly attached to many composers.

I went to many concerts and heard a lot of different music. I became familiar with so many repertoires. As long as I can remember, I have loved music.


    WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Dec 3, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $22 to $98 (call 6348-5555 or go to

Your concert next month is an all-Rachmaninov programme. Do his works hold any special meaning for you?

I'm Russian and Rachmaninov speaks to me. I think he was an amazingly gifted human being - spiritually and musically - and I'm very Russian, so I identify with his type of expression very much.

What happens if someone plays the wrong note or makes a mistake on stage?

Just a few months ago, I conducted a concert with a good violinist.

He played very well, but in the last movement, he made a mistake - instead of repeating something, he didn't. He made that mistake and he sort of got lost. The orchestra and I managed to help him. Whatever he played, we followed even though it was not correct.

These things happen. Music is unpredictable - like life. You just have to work together and not show it to anybody. It's about making the public not notice it.

What makes a good performance?

When they perform - the orchestra, pianist or violinist - and they understand the message the composer tries to give to the audience and they can transmit it.

If you don't understand, no matter how well you play, you will lose the piece and the audience. If you don't understand the meaning of the composer's message, your piece will be a misrepresentation.

It's a complex issue to talk about: what people try to express and understand in music, what they want to convey to the audience. First, you must understand the music.

Do you still have on-stage jitters?

I don't know if you can call it nerves, I'm not shaking in fear.

I think about the piece and concentrate very much. I'm just so focused, preparing psychologically.

I enter a different state than normal, but it's not nerves. It's all my concentration. I practise the piano. I learn my scores.

I don't eat before a performance because I don't find it very productive. I can do that after the performance - have dinner with my wife and friends, have a good night's sleep.

You were in Singapore last year. What are you looking forward to when you come back?

I like the country very much. It's a very spiritually elevated place.

People enjoy culture, they enjoy thinking and reacting to important cultural events.

So I think it's a good example of how a very small place at a very high level of existence can also be interested in the spiritual aspect of life: music, literature and so on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Maestro tunes out to be in the zone '. Print Edition | Subscribe