Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up piano, and pursue a career in music?

My father started taking me to concerts and to the theatre when I was very young – about six years old, around 1968. I remember the first time: It was at the old Public Hall in Preston, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves. I was completely overwhelmed by his experience and I must have been obsessed with music from that time.

A little later, my parents bought me a cheap turntable for Christmas and two records; Nikita Magaloff playing Chopin mazurkas, the other a compendium based on the radio programme, “Your 100 Best Tunes”, which included a recording of Wilhelm Backhaus in the first movement of the Moonlight sonata. There was also present from a friend of Charles Groves; Beethoven’s Appassionata and the sonata op 101 played Solomon, this latter incomparably wonderful.

I still have these records, and it was these recordings, and the concerts, which switched me on to music, and to the piano.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I suppose the most important of these were my teachers; in particular, Renna Kellaway, with whom I started serious study at about 15. She really did everything for me as a pianist, in terms of setting up and developing technique and guiding my musicianship in every way. Renna was so remarkable, and I am so lucky to have been able to study with her. Her influence informs all of my own teaching, and my playing.

Later on I had the chance to work with Murray Perahia, and he encouraged me to return to playing after I had almost totally given up. It was his kindness, warmth, gentleness and obviously his extraordinary gifts as a musician and his sagacity, his wiseness, which inspired me. I can’t begin to overestimate how inspirational and valuable that was.

I think also the performances I managed to attend with the very greatest pianists who were still playing when I was young, have influenced me. I saw and heard Michelangeli four times and I couldn’t speak after the first time I heard him; the indescribably wonderful sound… Richter too; I actually shook his hand at the end of one concert, which was in Mainz (in a conference centre!) in an all-Liszt programme, right at the end of his career. I have never witnessed such risk-taking and immediacy, and this from a pianist in his late 70s! He was in a very good mood that night, and the concert almost took on the atmosphere of an informal get-together, but in the company of a musical titan. I will never forget that evening!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think the biggest has to be what I considered at the time to be my failure. I was hopeless in competitions – I hate them and I think it brings out the worst in musicians, on both sides of the fence. Thank goodness I finally found my own way to get back to playing, to have a career in academia, but also to continue with a sort of performing career at my own pace. At the moment, I play no more than 20 concerts a year, but I am on a slow burn!

I think also finding a way around terrible self-doubt and nerves was a big challenge. I still suffer from this, but I have found my way, and I think I have developed in my performance classes a collegial atmosphere where positivity, encouragement and generosity help my students to be more confident as performers. I hope so, anyway; I am very proud of my work in this area.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I did a part-time Master’s at Edinburgh University and studied the Schumann Humoreske very thoroughly, and analysed it as my main thesis. At the time, it wasn’t at all a central work in the repertoire, and I placed a great deal of faith in it. It was part of the programme in my first serious solo recital (at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh) when I got back to playing, and I am quite proud of the recording of that performance.

I’m also very proud of a recording I made, for Delphian Records, of all of the solo piano music (and also the piano quintet), by the Scottish composer, Robert Crawford. I learned everything in about three months and it was straight into recording; no try-out performances. To do this for this wonderful composer, and to see the pleasure and gratitude in him, was incredibly rewarding.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Oh, I really can’t say whether I play them better – that’s up to the audience to decide! I think I am most at home when I am preparing a work again, after a very long time; it is like meeting an old friend whom I had forgotten was so interesting – and sometimes so different – from my memories of them. There isn’t a single composer who isn’t actually part of my most intense love, and I hope I get a bit closer to them each time. If I had to be pushed, I would say that Mozart might be a possibility. I learned and played the C minor concerto when I was very young, and each time I come back to that work I feel very, very close to it. Certain works by Chopin I feel I can bring something to; the second Impromptu, the Etude op 25/7, the Preludes op 28… Beethoven op 101, perhaps, Schubert, Schumann… oh dear, I haven’t a clue how best to answer this question!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I like to have a theme, if possible. At the moment, I’m preparing a programme based on the theme of water: Mendelssohn, Liszt, Ravel, Debussy, Berio and Ligeti and I hope it will work in the way I want it to. I always programme something completely new, and I will balance that with a work that I have played before, but not for a long time.

I quite like the challenge of being told what to play; perhaps for a series dedicated to a composer; to honour an anniversary; to play something that has a particular relevance to where I am going to play it.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I adore the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. There is a new concert series in Hamburg situated near the harbour, and the concerts take place in a converted warehouse of a former train station. The acoustics are unbelievably good and there is a real feeling of connection to the audience.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The Richter recital I mentioned above is up there; There was a recital Jorge Bolet gave in London, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the early 1980s, just as his career was blossoming – very late in his life, with a performance of Chopin Preludes and a mix of Debussy Preludes (from both sets) which left me speechless and very emotional. I heard Pollini at the Berlin Philharmonie in the Boulez second sonata, when I was sitting two rows in front of the composer, which was very, very special. To see and hear an artist achieve something so remarkable, so musical and so skilled (that I couldn’t begin to aspire to myself), was simply magical. This was right at the very end of Boulez’s life, and Pollini got him to take a bow at the end; it was very moving, after such a wonderful performance.

I remember an extraordinarily powerful and impassioned Liszt sonata by Annie Fischer, which I will never forget, again, right at the end of her life, but goodness, was she on unbelievable form! I was on the front row, and I could actually see her in the wings, smoking a cigarette literally seconds before stepping on-stage; she simply handed the cigarette to someone and walked on exhaling the smoke! I admire that kind of courage, as I know how nervous she must have been, even after all those thousands of performances.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a performing musician; to disappear completely into the work, to be consumed by it in performance, so that nothing else matters, for those precious, magical moments when you are making music and you have an audience completely at attention. At the same time, to remain humble, open, self-critical and wary of praise, to keep learning, and on, and on, and to realise that real success is that communication, directly, of what the composer has required. The trappings; money, competitions, agents, publicity, prizes etc, mean nothing in themselves.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Learn your craft as diligently as possible. There are no short-cuts. At the same time, remember it is music and its communication, which are of the only importance, and do your best not to get side-tracked into what others tell you is important. If it is something you have chosen to do, you will be as good a musician as you can be, based on your own gifts, and your own work, if you take care of yourself and all of your colleagues. If you trade that in to get ahead, you will lose your way.

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