Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
A passion to communicate through the medium of sound. Ever since I was child, I was fascinated with sound. It could be anything, from a note on the piano, a singer’s voice to the sound the razor made when my father shaved! In fact, I was so obsessed with that, I tried to shave my face to hear the rasping sound I so longed to hear, but, of course, to no avail. Looking at the mirror, I noticed a concentration of hairs just above my eye and drew the razor right across my eye-brow: I heard the noise I longed to hear and was satisfied. My parents though weren’t very pleased.
I have recently published my book ‘Dreams and Aspirations’ which charts my journey to Oxford, from my humble beginnings on the island of Cyprus to my founding the Oxford Philharmonic, an instrument I longed for to convey and share all the musical experiences and knowledge I accumulated to a discerning audience
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
My teachers Ilona Kabos and Gina Bachauer as well as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim and Herbert von Karajan. Just before my debut as a pianist at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I played the Liszt B minor Sonata to Vladimir Ashkenazy. He made a number of interesting suggestions and insightful comments before pausing at the coda to elaborate on it extensively, going to great pains to explain the significance of the last page and how he considered it the high point of the piece. We worked in detail on blends of colour, depth of sound and translucent sonorities. He ensured that each chord progression unfolded slowly and that the musical line had a clear direction. He wanted me to create that sense of timelessness as I moved towards the valedictory two chords that bring this epic work to a close, as if tossing soil onto the grave. As my London debut approached, I felt I had assimilated enough knowledge and gained commensurate experience to make an assertive, informed musical statement. I stepped on to the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage with confidence and I think I did my best. The recital was well received by a large and enthusiastic audience. The next day, The Times’s critic Bryce Morrison declared: ‘Altogether, an astonishing debut and we shall undoubtedly be hearing much more of Marios Papadopoulos.’ What pleased me most was his reference to the last page of the Liszt Sonata: ‘Characteristically, the performance [of the Liszt] reached its zenith in the visionary coda, so often a pitfall for less finely expressive pianists.’ Ashkenazy’s input had clearly paid off.
It so happened that on the day the Times review appeared, quite serendipitously, Ashkenazy, who was in New York, passed by a street kiosk and bought a copy. He read the review – which I am sure brought a smile to his face – and called to congratulate me.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
Conducting fascinated me from the beginning. I always had a visual perspective on music, which made me see patterns delineating the contours of a phrase whenever I was performing or listening. The most challenging and rewarding aspect of conducting is being able to connect with the musicians so that I can guide and share my musical ideas with them. I can only do that by listening attentively to the sounds they make and watching how they breathe and how they move. At the right time I latch onto them, like executing a missile lock. I can then exert full control over the flow of the music. Whenever a connection happens, conducting is one of the most exhilarating experiences.
I often allude to the experience of riding a horse to explain this phenomenon. An expert rider will feel, follow and influence the horse’s movement. In this sense, the rider becomes one with the horse, just as a conductor has to bond and become one with the players.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
With few words as possible and a variety of gestures. Players in the best orchestras are highly sophisticated musicians with considerable knowledge and experience. They don’t need anyone to tell them how to play. When you stand on the podium, they will size you up and appraise your abilities within minutes. It takes a lot to win their respect and attention before they allow you to take the lead. I feel that my job as a conductor is to get the best out of them. It is important that I allow them time and space to breathe, and at times follow their lead.
As alluded earlier, controlling an orchestra is not unlike riding a thoroughbred, where you have to be as one with the horse and know how to handle it. Every time I stand in front of the Oxford Philharmonic, I feel as if I am sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari, with tremendous power in my hands to unleash when circumstances dictate, but if I were to lose control, which does happen at times, I’d be heading for disaster.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
Shaping the musical performance with an emphasis on structure and the beauty of sound. When I make music, I try to adopt an aesthetic approach which favours the purely musical and which captures the autonomous beauty of tonally moving forms: a kind of musical kaleidoscope that fully complements feelings aroused and disposes musical ideas as patterns of sound and colours in elaborate diversity. Music is then traced back to its quintessential being, its tone-world.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
The one I am currently preparing to conduct, though generally I feel more at home with the Classical repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven…
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford – home to the Oxford Philharmonic. I feel a sense of awe whenever I perform there, knowing that where I stand is where Haydn might have stood to receive his doctorate from the university back in 1791. As the orchestra plays, the sound envelops you and you sense that those seated in the front can almost touch you. Indeed, the ‘Sheldonian Musical Experience’ is a phrase coined by many of our loyal followers. Over the years, I have given more than 250 performances in this magical space.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Seek inspiration from anything around me that exudes beauty. This drives a desire in me to create beauty in whatever I do.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
Perform at a high level and never underestimate your audiences.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
There is no such thing and certainly not one measured by the number of engagements you have or fame; only fulfilment in what you are doing.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Share your passion for the music in a contagious manner. Never compromise your standards and avoid at all times taking the path of least resistance, however convenient at times; this will always produce mediocre results.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still on earth. If I am still able to function at a high level, I would like to devote the latter part of my career to recording more piano repertoire.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Peace with yourself.
What is your most treasured possession?
My family and my piano. Whether I feel high or low, the piano will always be my sanctuary: behind it I sit and meditate and in front of it I am a creator and a craftsman. No one can ever take that away from me.
What is your present state of mind?
Anxious to achieve lots more as an artist and fulfil what is expected of me.
‘Beyond Dreams and Aspirations: My journey to Oxford’ by Marios Papadopoulos (with a foreword by Maxim Vengerov) is out now
Forthcoming concerts by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra include performances by Steven Isserlis and Andras Schiff. Full details here
Having begun his career as a concert pianist, Marios Papadopoulos founded the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998 and has continued at its helm as Music Director ever since. Under his direction the Orchestra has gone from strength to strength, performing regularly in Oxford and beyond, and forging a strong relationship with the University of Oxford.
Described by The Times at his 1975 piano recital debut as having ‘all the attributes of one of the world’s greatest players’, Papadopoulos has gone on to enjoy an international career both as pianist and conductor.