Renowned classical music pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy visited Phnom Penh in early March, as part of the “Bridges” event series. Johan Smits sat down with the musical legend on the eve of his performance at Chaktomuk Theatre.
AL: You were born and spent your youth under a repressive Soviet regime. Has this background anything to do with your decision to take part in the Bridges initiative of promoting peace and tolerance?
VA: No, it is beyond how I spent my youth. [Promoting peace] is an idea that is of global importance – of course – for mankind. Whatever we can do to help people understand what they’re doing on our tiny planet, to help each other and go forward in every respect – cultural, economical and so on – is worth doing. And this organisation [Bridges] contributes so much that it would be impossible to overestimate it.
AL: It is often said that music is a universal language, yet different cultures have different styles of musical expression. Western classical music has not yet found its place in Cambodian society, but do you have an impression of what the possible role of classical music in Cambodia might be?
VA: Music can do a lot of positive, a lot of good in principle. Because, the message – once people understand it and begin to respond to it and appreciate it – this message can make anybody’s life richer, more satisfying. There’s no question about that. It also expands people’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual horizons. These are not empty words. There are numerous examples to support what I say, into which I cannot go now, but there’s no question about it. So this can help. Any humanistic exercise moves us forward and I lament very much when I see governments cutting funds for cultural education here and there, be it music, be it anything else, because I think it puts mankind two steps back.
AL: Have you had the opportunity of listening to any traditional music here?
VA: No, I’m afraid not, it just never happened. It would be very interesting. I’m interested in all sorts of music. In a way it is very often a complete picture of a nation. I know there must be some indigenous traditional music or ideas or whatever but I’m not familiar with it.
AL: You will be performing alongside your sons Vovka and Dmitri. Is this a rare occasion or does this happen more often?
VA: Well, I’ve played with them separately many times, but together in one concert, never, I don’t think so. But this is a special case. Because, as you know, about this society [Bridges], their aims and so on, we’re doing charity, therefore I suggested this. Our concert life, in our normal circuit, I never put forward my sons. Unless if we’re invited together, I accept it or don’t, whatever I see fit. But for a charity concert I suggested “how about having my two sons?” And they are at liberty to say no but they said “yes, why not, we like the idea”. I didn’t press the issue, I just asked if they were interested. And they were, so we’re delighted to be together like this.
AL: What piano will you be playing on tomorrow?
VA: In this country unfortunately there are no good instruments at the moment, and I hope that one day either some very wealthy people or the government will help and get proper instruments. We had to borrow from the embassies a couple of instruments. They don’t match each other and they’re not of the highest quality. They’re even small, they’re not concert grands here, so it’s not good enough, but what can you do? We’ll do what we can!
AL: Apart from music, what are your other passions in life?
VA: Oh, I don’t know. Life… I’m thinking about what we’re doing on this planet, what it’s all about. How interesting our existence – philosophically. Anyway, I’m not a philosopher – of course not – but I’m interested in trying to understand what it’s all about. Very wide…! [laughs]
AL: Have you got anywhere with that?
VA: No! I can’t get anywhere. But the process is fascinating, that’s what it is! [laughs]
AL: What are your plans for the next few years in terms of your music?
VA: Well, I’m busy non-stop all the time. I conduct around the clock. Piano playing is basically recording. Concerts I’ve almost done with, although this is an exception. Because, you see, I know that either you’re playing all the time and then you reach a certain level at public appearances, I mean professionally. Or you don’t play. It’s either/or. When I play with my sons, I’m not exposed so much, it’s not the same thing as playing solo – this I can do. So that’s why I decided now I just conduct all the time, non-stop, and I have enough work!
The ongoing ‘Bridges – Dialogues towards a culture of peace’ initiative, organised by The International Peace Foundation, will continue with two more lectures in April. For more information, please visit: www.peace-foundation.net