The man who opened the door of the hotel suite at 11 am yesterday had a full head of white hair and a white polo shirt to match. He was also wearing a big smile on his face.
Here was one of the world’s most renowned artists—a “living legend” was how one fan described him—in Western classical music, having just landed in Phnom Penh and yet he was relaxed, ready for an interview.
Pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy flew in from Melbourne, Australia, where he had conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra until Saturday afternoon. Asked how he handled his jetlag, Mr Ashkenazy said there was no remedy but to plunge into work—hence this interview.
Born into a family of musicians in Russia, Mr Ashkenazy launched his career in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, winning awards at some of the most prestigious piano competitions in Europe. Over the last two decades, he has mainly worked as a conductor, only playing piano in recording studios.
But he has come to Cambodia as part of the International Peace Foundation’s series “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace” and will give a free concert on Tuesday night at Chaktomuk Conference Hall on Sisowath Quay.
He will play piano with his two sons, pianist Vovka Ashkenazy and clarinetist Dimitri Ashkenazy. The event promises to be standing-room only. On Friday, organizers were looking into adding extra seating as requests for tickets had already exceeded the hall’s 600 seats.
Mr Ashkenazy was chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1998 to 2003, music director of the Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2007, and is currently principal conductor and artistic advisor to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
He has given concerts and conducted orchestras the world over, but has never been to Cambodia before, which is one of the reasons why he decided to take part in the “Bridges” series this year, he said.
In addition to supporting the Peace Foundation’s concept, Mr Ashkenazy said, “It was particularly interesting to go where I had never been before, which is Cambodia.”
Setting up a concert in Phnom Penh for a legendary conductor and pianist was not without difficulty, said Fred Frumberg of Amrita Performing Arts, which is organizing the event with the Ministry of Culture.
“The biggest challenge was figuring out how to, first, identify and then move two grand pianos into the Chaktomuk,” Mr Frumberg said yesterday. One piano was lent by a musician and the other by the US Embassy, which also paid to transport the two instruments, he said.
“With limited choice, there was no question about brand though, of course, Mr Ashkenazy wanted to know in advance the type and year of each [piano] so he would know what he would be dealing with,” Mr Frumberg said
He requested “also a particular kind of tuning he needed, which luckily our local tuner knew about. So it was all handled in country.”
During his visit, Mr Ashkenazy will meet with Cambodian composers, Western-classical music musicians, teachers and students of music.
One goal of the Peace Foundation is to further peace by creating links between leading figures from various fields and people in those fields in Asean countries, the foundation’s Chairman Uwe Morawetz said.
“Peace is not something which can be left to the elite of a few,” Mr Morawetz said. “It’s something which everyone has to take a part in—young people, people in politics, scientists, people from the arts,” he said.
Mr Ashkenazy will depart Cambodia for the Philippines on Wednesday as part of the Peace Foundation’s series.
The concert on Tuesday at Chak tomuk will include works by Western composers Schumann, Poulenc, Schubert and Ravel. It will start at 7 pm.