The Conductor

Vladimir Ashkenazy on Prague, oppression and the artist’s calling.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the Czech Philharmonic was struggling with
rebirth. Formerly the country’s proudest institution and one of Europe’s best
orchestras, it had wilted badly under communist neglect. When the Russians invaded,
their tanks stopped all progress cold.

Thirty years later, another Russian rolled in and unexpectedly midwifed the
long overdue rebirth of the Czech Philharmonic.

His name was Vladimir Ashkenazy, a legendary pianist and composer who at eight
years old played with Dmitri Shostakovich in Lenin’s Russia. By the time he
defected to the West in 1963, he was the poster child of Soviet Culture, and
went on to play with every major orchestra in every major hall on the planet.
Ashkenazy became chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1998, an addition
that cemented its return to world-class status.

Ashkenazy’s first trip to Prague was in June of 1956. It was a 24-hour stopover
en route east that he remembers fondly.

“It was a memorable night,” he says. “I was sent by the Soviet government to
a competition in Brussels where I won first prize. Coming back it was impossible
to get to Moscow by air, so I took the train from Prague. I spent one night
here, and I was so deeply impressed by such a beautiful city.”

In 1963 Ashkenazy and his wife, the Icelandic pianist Thorunn Johannsdottir,
who was then studying in Moscow, traveled to London on Soviet passports to play
Festival Hall. The concert lasted longer than anyone expected, with encore after
encore. He would play London for the next eight years before resettling in Canada.
There, Ashkenazy became what he could never be in Russia: a citizen of music
and a citizen of the world. He was no longer a pawn of the powerful, a prized
prodigy to be trotted out of the stable for the honor of The State.

His freedom was a long time coming. Before the accolades and the well-paid recordings,
before the fame, the interviews and the first-class flights, Vladimir Ashkenazy
was an official Artist of the People for some 20 years.


Born in Gorky, Russia, in 1937 to parents who were professional pianists,
Ashkenazy ascended to fame quickly in Soviet Russia. He debuted in Moscow when
he was eight, and went on to study with the legendary Lev Oborin at the Moscow
Conservatory. At the age of 19 he won the Gold Medal in the Brussels Queen Elizabeth
Inter-national Piano Competition. Follow-ing this remarkable early success,
Ashkenazy became a photogenic poster boy for Russian – and Soviet – pianism.

Ashkenazy’s role in Cold War propaganda reached its height during his triumphant
tour of the United States in 1958.

He was sent West to show the Ame-rican slobs how to play. Americans were uncultured,
untutored and undisciplined; all arts were foreign to them, the propaganda went.
At that time, most of the great musicians and musical personalities in the United
States were immigrants, notably the Austrian Arnold Schoenberg, the father of
serial music, and the Russian Igor Stravinsky. They were transplants from another
artistic world. The 1950s were a period of ridiculous Russian-U.S. one-upmanship.
An American critic of this period once complained that a Russian violinist played
more notes at his concert than an American violinist did in his. (The critic
neglected to mention that they were playing two different pieces.)

In 1962, at the height of his State-sponsored fame, Ashkenazy took first prize
in the Second Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It was an enormous honor, though
one he shared with the British pianist John Ogden.

The following year, he would defect in London, beginning the second stage of
a career that would lead him one day back to Prague, where he conducts with
an energy and a brilliance that belies his 65 years.

On January 4, 1896, the famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák conducted the Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra in its premiere concert. From that auspicious entrée
into musical history, the orchestra went on to work with the most illustrious
personalities of fin-de-siecle Europe, including Gustav Mahler, Edvard Grieg
and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and was helmed by two of the greatest Czech conductors,
the charismatic Václav Talich and the stern Rafael Kubelík.

After the Communists took power in 1948, the orchestra toured mostly behind
the Iron Curtain. Their recordings, though numerous and wide in repertoire,
were nearly impossible to obtain in the West. The musicians were under constant
scrutiny, and many violinists and choristers were often paid in food, cigarettes,
and alcohol – if they were paid at all.

After the fall of communism in 1989, the orchestra sought to recover from decades
of censorship and neglect. Though great local instrumentalists were abundant
– often playing on street corners and bridges or laboring at other occupations
– a musician of vision was required, a conductor who could restore this once-great
orchestra to its former glory.

Conductors Jiři Bělohlávek (1990-1992) and Gerd Albrecht (1993-1996) each served
short tenures worthy of their talent, and from 1996 to 1998 nets were cast wide
for the man to save the orchestra.

In 1998, the Czech Philharmonic found him. After a half-century of communism,
and after a great deal of soul-searching on the part of members of the appointment
committee, it was saved by the unlikeliest of people – a Russian bearing a Icelandic

On the morning following a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony at
Prague’s Rudolfinum, Vladimir Ashkenazy straightens his spry frame and brushes
back a formidable bush of white hair. His eyes seek out the piano across the
room, where the grand’s lacquer is bathed in the sunlight streaming through
the room’s window and onto the Vltava.

“Some things are only said in music,” he says.

He is considering the relationship between art and politics, a subject he is
well-suited to address. After a lifetime divided between totalitarianism and
Canada’s democratic welfare state, he has lived the artist’s life on both sides
of the Iron Curtain.

Does he think music of a higher order comes out from under oppression?

“I could write a book about [this],” he says. It is, of course, an unanswerable
and timeless question. In the history of music, there are certainly more arguments
for oppression’s effect than against, as demonstrated by the music of oppressed
minorities: the music of black America, Irish music, Klezmer music, and Roma

Leaning forward, on his elbows over the expanse of arborvitae, Ashkenazy attempts
an answer.

“Some of the greatest works of art are great from tremendous suffering,” he
says, weighing his words carefully. “To turn it upside down, though – would
it be right to support oppressive regimes in order to create great art? ‘No’
is the answer. That’s absurd.”

Then, though his British-accented English is fluent, he drops into his native
tongue to recite a Russian proverb: “Net skuda bez dobra.” He translates it
into English: “There is no bad without good.” He adds, “it sounds so much better
in Russian.”

Ashkenazy believes in the oneness of all arts, and says all artists create an
oppressive world for themselves, within or without. Sometimes it is a reaction
to what they believe to be the necessary conditions for the creation of their
art. They create a world in order to create within it.

“Like Mahler, an incredibly gifted man who wrote irresistible music,” he says,
12 hours after conducting the last bar of Mahler’s second, and second-longest,
symphony. “He was so tough, with tremendous inner problems. I would not want
to have met him.” He grins widely, and adds, “And of course, his wife was so
terribly unfaithful to him.”

Like a true artist, like a musician whose every performance was once interpreted
as a political statement, he attributes the ability to create to talent, not

“If artists are able to express, they are able to express the intense suffering
and tragedy of their own lives. Another person, less talented, couldn’t. There
were many people, under Communism, many composers, who just suffered. That’s
it. They just suffered and didn’t do anything for anyone in return.”

Here Ashkenazy trails off and rests his chin on his chest. “But,” he adds, “of
course, you also must be brave enough to do it, to express. That is essential.”

Vladimir Ashkenazy waxes poetic about artistic bravery. To hear him expound
upon an artistic calling is to be transported back to a concept of art that
even Communism couldn’t stifle. This is the idea that the work of art is the
creator’s communication with the divine; it is the idea that a creator creates,
no matter what, and must be brave in overcoming any obstacle, personal or political,
that comes between him and his work, between him and what Ashkenazy defines
as his “calling.”

This is a German idea, one illustrated by Beethoven in his self-conscious break
from the nobility, as well as by the artists caught in the outward oppression
of the Soviet Union.

Ashkenazy sees this bravery in the work of Dmitri Shostakovich, the great composer
who simultaneously courted fame and fall, and with whom a young Ashkenazy once

“His music is a profound statement for humanity,” he says. Ashkenazy doesn’t
see these same qualities in Prokofiev, a man who he feels toed the Party line.

As Ashkenazy puts it, Prokofiev “mistakenly thought better times were coming
on their own,” and so he remained loyal to a society that sapped his creative
energies, which took them, virtually imprisoned them, and corrupted them to
its own ends.

Ashkenazy finds bravery in the conflicted Austro-Czech-Jewish soul of Mahler.
“Though a difficult man, as a person and as a musician,” Ashkenazy reiterates,
“he demanded the highest of himself and his art.”

But for his humility, Vladimir Ashkenazy should see these qualities in himself.
Beyond the obvious courage of his defection, there is his ability to move seamlessly
between, and sometimes combine, the dual careers of pianist and conductor. There
are also his forays into modern music, such as when he commissioned a piano
concerto from the Icelandic composer Rautavaara. There is his wide repertoire,
ranging from Haydn to Schoenberg. There are his experiments with orchestration,
highlighted by his electrifying version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
These efforts show an uncompromising, brave determination to grow – one especially
remarkable given his age and stature.

Ashkenazy concludes his paean to bravery with a dissection of Mahler’s Second
Symphony, which he was readying to conduct again that evening. He calls the
work “incredibly impressive, all of them [the symphonies]; impressive in its
need to communicate. It is quite unbelievable. Anyone who knows music cannot
help but be drawn in by them.”

The symphony is subtitled The Resurrection, and is a response by Mahler to the
death of a close friend as well as, in the words of Ashkenazy, “a representation
of a non-religious resurrection, of a more of existential sort.”

A few hours after the interview, Ashkenazy is freshly showered, shaved and tuxedoed,
up on the podium conducting his way through some of the most difficult music
ever written.

The two performances at the Rudolfinum were well-received. Ashkenazy’s sureness,
strength and passion for the music and the orchestra shone through as the weighty
work reverberated off the walls of the Prague hall.

Mahler’s Second Symphony is an appropriate piece for Ashkenazy, his love for
it aside. It takes as one of its texts a poem by 18th-century poet Friedrich
Gottlieb Klopstock. In the fifth and final movement, the soloists sing two sections
that touch on issues close to Ashkenazy’s heart, as they should for the rest
of us.

O glaube, mein Herz, O glaube

es geht dir nichts verloren.

Dein ist, was du gesehnt

dein was du geliebt

was du gestritten.

O believe my heart, O believe,

nothing of you will be lost.

What you longed for is yours,

yours what you loved,

what you championed.

O glaube, du warst nicht umsonst geboren.

Hast nicht umsonst gelebt gelitten.

O believe, you were not born in vain.

Have not vainly lived and suffered.

Ashkenazy conducts it like he believes it, which in the end is more important
than it being true. This isn’t the science of politics, after all. It’s art,
and that’s enough.


Ashkenazy conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the Rudolfinum on Thursday,
January 9, 2003, and Friday, January 10, 2003, at 7:30 p.m., performing Prokofiev’s
On the Guard of Peace, Opus 24 and Shostakovich’s harrowing Symphony No. 13
in Bb minor for bass, male choir and orchestra, Opus 113.

On January 14, 2003, at 7:30 p.m., there will be a special concert billed as
Echoes of the Storm, Dramas of Russian History in Music and Cinematography.
The concert is to be complemented by the projection of film segments. Shostakovich’s
music for the film soundtrack of The Fall of Berlin will be included.

On January 30 and 31, 2003, at 7:30 p.m., Ashkenazy conducts Shostakovich’s
Symphony No. 10, Opus 93 in addition to the Concerto No. 2 in C major for cello
and orchestra by the Kabalevsky.

Purchase your tickets at the Rudolfinum well in advance, and dress appropriately.


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For a view of Ashkenazy as a pianist, try his recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes
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