Saleem Ashkar

We are thrilled to announce that the pianist Saleem Ashkar has joined Askonas Holt for his General Management. Berlin-based Saleem Ashkar has established relationships with some of the world’s most prominent conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Ricardo Chailly, Riccardo Muti, Fabio Luisi and Philippe Jordan. His next release on DECCA (May 2014) will feature Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos with the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Ricardo Chailly. Forthcoming concert highlights include Staatskapelle Berlin, Maggio Musicale, Melbourne Symphony, and he is currently midway through a complete  Beethoven sonata cycle at Sage Gateshead.
We are delighted that he could take time out to answer a few questions on his career to date and plans for the future. 

You’ve recently embarked on a Cycle of Beethoven Sonatas at the Sage, Gateshead.  What are you enjoying most about the cycle?

Well, this cycle is something I’d been wanting to do for a long time. To play the whole Beethoven cycle feels like climbing the Mount Everest of piano playing, and the idea of doing it had been bugging me, but I hadn’t felt ready. Then, there just came a point where I felt: “Now”. Some kind of inner maturity I suppose. It’s not that you feel totally at ease, one never is I think, facing such a task. but there is a sense of knowing that you can do it, and I was delighted to be able to collaborate with the Sage on it.
The sonatas encompass a wonderfully broad span of musical history and styles. What are the enjoyments and challenges as you progress through the cycle?
Beethoven was always composing piano sonatas, so as a form, alongside the Quartets, they are the most intimate expression of his musical self, a kind of musical diary that accompanied him all the way along his evolution. It is similar to Mozart’s piano concertos. So, with them there’s a sense that you’re really witnessing the work of this genius unfold in very close steps, which isn’t the case with other genres. You feel a real progression: you see certain ideas bobbing their heads up in a certain sonata hardly noticed, which then become more important in the one following and more important again in the one after, and yet almost each Sonata has a new format or concept. A kind of progress and renewal at the same time! 
It has also been very interesting to observe not only the musical material objectively but also my relation to it. Rubinstein wrote in his Autobiography that one should play only the works that grab you immediately and you feel that you have to play them. I accepted this for many years, however by committing to the cycle you are inevitably working on Sonatas that you feel less immediately drawn to, and funnily so often I end up loving them even more dearly! Love at first sight is not necessarily the deepest love. 
So, performing the sonatas as a cycle, you’re able to notice these artistic and creative progressions in a way that you wouldn’t if you were playing two sonatas this year, two another year, and none the year after.
That’s your exciting solo project at the moment, but your diary is full of exciting collaborations too. You’re releasing the two Mendelssohn concertos on disc next month.
Yes, and I’m so happy that this project came together. Needless to say, performing Mendelssohn with the Gewandhaus and Riccardo Chailly, and in Leipzig, feels like going to Mecca. It’s where it all belongs. So, I felt a sense of excitement, a sense of privilege, and believe me, a heavy sense of responsibility. I think we had a really fresh look at these works, too. The first concerto is often performed with a lot of bubbliness and joie de vivre, but the fact that it is structurally so tightly knit together is neglected. Then, the second piano concerto (which, by the way, I think is a masterwork that is underplayed) is almost the opposite: the opening statement is this kind of Bachman recitative that tricks you into entering into professorial mode, but that work is actually so exiting, passionate and adrenaline driven. So, doing this recording and rediscovering these pieces with Chailly feels like one of the greatest experiences in my career so far. I learnt a lot from him, and I gave all of myself in the process.
You’ve collaborated a good deal with Chailly. Was it good to get that relationship down on disc?
Yes, very much. I don’t know an artist who will tell you that when the microphones are there, and the red light is on, that they’re not affected by it. It’s simply human biology to be aware of and changed by the fact that you’re playing for posterity. Yet I think that the extremity of the situation also brings something out in you artistically, and when I listen to the takes and the final edit, I think we managed to preserve both the strictness of musical thought, but also a sense of freshness and life, and the sense of performance. Chailly is such an experienced recording artists, it was interesting to watch him tackle this process.
Your career seems all the more remarkable in the light of the fact that you were born in the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth, so a culture where classical music wasn’t performed, or even played and listened to at all. How did classical music enter your life?  
It was a series of coincidences. My mother went to a missionary school in Nazareth run by French nuns. It was very strict, and one of the few beautiful memories she has of it is hearing the nuns playing the piano to themselves. So, my father acquired a piano for her, simply out of her nostalgia for that. He literally traded an old car for an old piano! Then in around 1982, the war with Lebanon opened the borders slightly for some people, and a distant relative of ours who was living in Lebanon came to visit. He played the piano for us, and that was it, basically. One has very few memories from the age of five or six, but I remember so very clearly that this is what I wanted to do. Then, by the age of ten, I said that I wanted to be a concert pianist even though I had not yet seen any professional pianists on stage. I still don’t know how that even works – a child who has not yet seen a concert, wanting to be a concert pianist. I always compare it to sea turtles that hatch out and somehow instinctively go towards the water. So that’s the fun part of the story, I suppose. Then, the second part, of course, was how to do it, because from very early on we had to take some really difficult decisions. Studying music meant leaving Nazareth and moving more into Israeli society, and then I also left Israel very early to come to Europe.
And how was that for you?
Very, very complex, and not always easy. Yet, also incredibly fulfilling, and I’m not even talking from the perspective of hindsight. Even at the time, I felt a sense of adventure, fulfilment and excitement, because I was aware that I was doing something new and special. I wasn’t, for example, a Russian boy in Moscow playing the piano with a clear path to follow. And so there was also a lot of difficulty, and feeling out of place. Very quickly, I began to feel that I belonged neither on one side nor the other.
You had to teach yourself Hebrew and German too, didn’t you?
Yes. German later on, and at the beginning the only way to learn classical music was to learn Hebrew. There were no Arabic teachers. To exaggerate slightly, it all led to a kind of identity crisis. It reached a head during my teenage years, when I was studying in a Jewish music school – because that was the only music school – as one of only two Arabic boys. However, in hindsight, and having dealt with it now, I feel that these experiences were only a positive thing. In fact, they have proved to be an absolute enrichment as to who I am, and how I view things. One particular outcome is that I’m always compulsively leaving my comfort zone now. I’m always challenging my conception and view of things. Comfort has almost become a negative thing for me. Hiding behind what you know…
You had support from some great conductors, too, who gave you some incredible debuts. Firstly Zubin Mehta, who engaged you with the Israel Philharmonic when you were just seventeen. What did that mean to you?
Oh, that was extraordinary. Really extraordinary. It was, I suppose, the first time I received confirmation from the outside world that I must be doing something right, and that was so important. You cannot become a great musician from your living room or studio; you have to work with great musicians, and grow by osmosis, feeling whether your musical ideas and impulses stand the test of the big stage, and of making music with a great conductor, cellist or violinist.
On that note your Carnegie Hall debut was with Daniel Barenboim, who has been another big supporter of your talent. How have your collaborations with him enriched your music making?
He is one of the most influential people in my development, simply because I have not only collaborated with him as a conductor, but he has also given so much of his time as a pianist, and as a piano teacher. I’ve spent many hours playing for him and having lessons with him, and to have that kind of contact with him – and long-term, over years – has been a extraordinary gift. Then, with the Carnegie Hall debut, I’m so lucky, because through some kind of magic I didn’t really understand what it meant. Otherwise, I think it would have paralysed me! I was absolutely having a blast, and it was only later that it dawned on me that this was my Carnegie Hall debut, with Barenboim. I think that’s one of the gifts of youth. Sometimes stupidity is a good thing!
Your own musical journey has made you very passionate about education, and you founded the Galilee Chamber Orchestra. Can you tell me about that?
Well, my development in music would not have had any chance of success without it having been a family project. My parents are not musicians – my mother is a teacher and my father is an engineer – but they became so deeply involved in music education, and the fight for me to have access to certain things, that when I left for Europe they simply felt, “we cannot stop”. So, my father started a musical foundation, and through my brother, who is a violinist, the project grew. We created The Galilee Chamber orchestra as part of this educational project, and I travel back to play with them about three times a year. The orchestra is a mixture of really fantastic professional players, and young players who are getting the chance to experience what it’s like to perform. It’s a wonderful mixture of musical satisfaction – because we are making music on a very high level – and personal satisfaction, because we’re giving these young players opportunities that I didn’t have, and as a result I’m retaining my relationship with my geographical home. So yes, it’s a great thing. I’m very proud of it.
Moving out to your wider career again, what future projects are you most looking forward to?
I’m particularly looking forward to playing with the Staatskapelle in Berlin next season. Not because it’s one more great orchestra that I’m playing with, but because it will very much represent closing a circle for me. I came to Berlin as a 22 year old student, and spent an enormous amount of time watching rehearsals with that orchestra and Barenboim. So, to now have this invitation to go back and play a Beethoven concerto there, which is very much their repertoire, feels like a great privilege. I’m very much looking forward to it.
What about further in the future? What are your big dreams?
My big dreams are really to keep on doing what I’m doing. Somebody, I’m not sure who, once said, “Pity those who have arrived”, and I feel that the danger of arriving in music is non-existent. We’re lucky like that. Particularly pianists, with our enormous repertoire. So, as much as it sounds like a cliché, the journey is the goal. Learning music, and having the privilege to go onstage and perform it, is what it’s about. I’m also very happy in my personal life. I have a wonderful family. So, basically, no complaints!
© Charlotte Gardner
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