Pianist swaps notes on ageing with Radio 4

Olivia O'Leary and Ashkenazy (needs trimming). Ashkenazy with broadcaster Olivia O'Leary

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One Monday morning, towards the end of the school summer holidays, I was heading into work via a friend's house… in the few moments it took to push my children through her front-door and return to my car, I missed a call on my mobile.

I barely looked at the number before ringing back: 'Hello, this is Karen Gregor, Radio 4, you rang?'

'Ah. Yes. This is Ashkenazy'.

Gulp.

I confess I'm not good at 'cool' (I do 'excitable' a little too well) and here was the world's most famous living pianist… a name I'd grown up knowing… in person ... on my mobile phone. Whatever I said (ok, blurted out) got a throaty chuckle in return, and we quickly agreed to speak later in the day.

A couple of months earlier I'd arranged with the journalist and broadcaster, Olivia O'Leary, to record three editions of Radio 4's interview programme One to One.

Growing older

The idea behind the series is that, every few weeks, a different presenter explores - through interviews - a topic they're particularly interested in. Olivia wanted to speak to people at the peak of their career about growing older.

At the top of our list was virtuoso pianist and conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and we really didn't think we'd get him. His agent was quick to respond, but I had no idea that the man himself had been passed my mobile number, so when he called I was delighted.

He agreed to give the interview but finding time was always going to be the problem: he lives in Switzerland, he's principal conductor and artistic advisor to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor laureate with the Philharmonia in London, and still rehearses and records a piano repertoire.

But he could manage an hour, at 5pm, on a Friday, in a hotel near Heathrow before flying out to the Far East for an orchestral tour.

Down to earth

So there we were, Olivia and I, awaiting his arrival; a little worried because the room wasn't what we'd requested. How would he respond to recording in a cramped, dark bedroom with one chair and a small sofa? Oh, it's no problem, he said, shortly after turning down a coffee, his wife could sit on the bed and the room was just fine.

He was down to earth, charming, and gave a very open interview: No, he doesn't think about ageing, but everyone knows soloists can't go on playing live into their 60s or 70s, at least not at the same level, not without trading to a certain extent on the audience's memories of the glory-days.

Nor would he continue conducting forever, aware - as he is - of conductors who can barely wave an arm but whose orchestras respond out of pure respect.

He also discussed the arthrotis (not arthritis) in his fingers, the musicians he most respects, and his unlikely dream career had music not been his life - Ashkenazy the professional footballer.

Olivia O'Leary interviews Vladimir Ashkenazy for One to One on Radio 4 at 0930 on Tuesday December 4.

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