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The family who are always in harmony

Vovka and Dimitri Ashkenazy are giving a concert together at JW3 this month

    The Ashkenazy family at London airport in 1971
    The Ashkenazy family at London airport in 1971

    There wouldn't be much point in asking the pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy's two sons what it is like to be their father's children. After all, they have never known anything different. But Vovka, the pianist, and his younger brother, Dimitri, the clarinettist, certainly grew up with an enviable artistic heritage.

    Music has been the Ashkenazy family business, give or take a few members, for generations, and Vovka and Dimitri - who are giving a concert together at JW3 this month - appreciate the life lessons their background has brought them.

    They both have flourishing individual careers and enjoy performing together as a duo whenever the opportunity arises. Dimitri, 47, is one of the world's leading clarinet soloists; Vovka, 55, is much sought after too, and teaches at the International Piano Academy, Imola, which has nurtured many of today's finest young performers.

    Their Russian-Jewish grandfather, David Ashkenazi, was a pianist himself, they relate - chiefly in the light music sphere, admired for his work with the Soviet pop singers whom he accompanied. His still more famous son grew up in Moscow during the Soviet era.

    Vovka was born in Russia, Dimitri in New York. After their father decided to leave the USSR permanently in 1963, the boys and their three sisters spent much of their childhoods in Iceland, their mother's home country, where Ashkenazy père helped to found the Reykjavík Arts Festival. When Dimitri was nine, they moved to Switzerland. Meanwhile they grew up, Dimitri reflects, "on tour!"

    Dimitri today
    Dimitri today

    Vovka, the eldest, says their international childhood was invaluable: "I saw places before the age of ten that most kids wouldn't experience - I went to Australia when I was eight, as well as Japan, Hong Kong and America," he remembers. Their sisters were musical as well and all learned instruments as children, but ultimately chose other careers.

    As the pianist, Vovka reflects that he probably bore the brunt of the outside world's expectations. "At first, it was hard to be yourself because you were constantly being compared - not in a professional way, but almost in a personal way," he says.

    Indeed, it's difficult to think of many musicians who are as universally loved and respected as Vladimir Ashkenazy. "Our father is known not only for his artistry, but also for his personality, the way he communicates with people," says Vovka. "In my first 20 or so years I wasn't as open and communicative as my father was, so I was often judged on that as well: not only on the playing, but my behaviour, my comportment towards people - and there was the inevitable comparison professionally as well, every so often."

    Even if their father was constantly away while they were children, both brothers credit him with instilling in them a sense of what it really means to be a musician - not only then, but now as well. They work together frequently, and Vladimir Ashkenazy's only performances on the piano these days tend to be in collaboration with one or other of his sons. "At that point he becomes neither my father nor my teacher, but simply a professional musician with whom I like playing, and we like putting on a nice programme," Dimitri declares.

    He says he never felt the pressure to live up to his father's achievements in terms of career: "It was more that both he and my mother, who was perhaps an even bigger influence on me, had a keen sense of music ethics, and I think I naturally evolved into something approaching that kind of authenticity. It would have been difficult for me to become a flamboyant showman on stage, living in my parents' household. I'd have had to be a very rebellious individual to do that! Growing up with them made me into somebody who is really looking for the essence of music and the essence of why you want to become a musician."

    Vovka points to the practical dimensions of his father's influence: "It was the way he practised, the way he dedicated himself to music, his discipline, getting enough sleep, getting enough nutrition - being very healthy and leading a disciplined life. That was very positive. And I find that in the past 10 to 20 years I've begun to benefit from the way he performs; putting things together from my memories, from recordings and the way I remember him practising, I find the influence is constant."

    Dimitri and Vovka say that when they work together they enjoy a natural rapport, both with one another and with their father. "We just sit down, play and make music," Vovka laughs. "It's different from working with other people in the chamber music environment where there is more discussion, more concern with how to phrase, how to time, etc, which we hardly ever do within the family. We have a very similar sense of how we like to make

    music, and so there's never any discussion. It's an almost instinctive way of operating."

    For their JW3 concert, the brothers have assembled a varied programme, including music by Schumann, a fascinating sonata by Nino Rota (who is most celebrated for his film scores for Federico Fellini) and the music of two Jewish composers, each extraordinary in his own way. Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) was of Italian-Jewish background, yet his music sounds almost more English than the English: "It's beautiful stuff," Dimitri remarks. "Very lush and lovely to listen to."

    And last, but by no means least, there is the Sonatina by Joseph Horovitz, who turned 90 earlier this year: "Originally he's of Austrian parentage - his parents moved to the UK just before the war, for obvious reasons - and he has spent his life here and written in all kinds of genres," Dimitri says. "His language, unusually, is very jazzy, and there's a lot of jazz in this piece. The second movement is like a smoky bar at 1am. And the last movement is an absolute riot!"

    It's a rare chance to hear the Ashkenazy brothers together, and to discover some very special music - and they intend to enjoy it every bit as much as the audience will.

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