Vladimir Ashkenazy

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On conducting the European Union Youth Orchestra 

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On Friday 13 April, the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) starts a six-date tour of the US with a performance of Copland’s An Outdoor Overture, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony at the University of North Carolina. Further concerts follow in Washington, New York, Boston, Bloomington and Evanston. The EUYO’s music director Vladimir Ashkenazy, who conducts all six concerts, tells us about this unique ensemble.

Vladimir AshkenazyWhile the programmes for your six concerts in the US vary from date to date, the one ever-present work is Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. Why have you chosen that?
Firstly, our orchestra must be very big, as so many people want to play. As a result, we usually have a repertoire that is not confined to, say, a Mozart symphony or anything else that requires very few players – we want huge pieces by Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss. Not only is the Alpine Symphony big, but it is also very European and so perfect to bring to America. It is not just a musical postcard, though. There are programmatic moments, yes, but most of it is a very important spiritual message of what one feels being there – being part of nature, part of the universe. Strauss does that fantastically.

And are all 27 member states of the European Union represented within that huge orchestra?
Yes, absolutely!

Presumably, though, some countries outnumber others…?
It changes from year to year, but mostly the UK and Germany have more players than others, and Holland and Spain are well represented too. A lot depends on circumstances. Spain did not use to bring many players, but I think musical education has been very much on the up there because recently there have been many more Spaniards. Smaller countries, naturally, can’t bring too many people.

With so many different nationalities, do you ever have language difficulties in rehearsal?
No. They all speak English. And if someone can’t understand something, I can always manage in French and German too. And anyway, when you’re speaking in musical terms you almost don’t need any language – people always understand.

Is conducting a youth orchestra any different from conducting adults?
Not really. They follow tremendously well. What we have to remember is that when the musicians come to the auditions, we sometimes have 20 people vying for one place – and even when they have got there, they have to re-audition each year too. So they always want to do their best and their level of interest is enormous. Their spirit, too, is absolutely incomparable. I’m not saying anything negative about great symphony orchestras, who are fantastic professionals, but the spirit of young people is really quite special.

How often does the orchestra tour?
Twice a year. Once at this time of year, and another tour in the summer holidays, usually in August but sometimes spilling into September. Very occasionally, for some practical or financial reason, we may do a single concert in the middle of winter, but it’s not always easy to get all the kids for that, as they tend to be very involved with their school activities.

Yours is one of a number of highly talented youth orchestras around today. Is the standard of orchestral playing among young people higher than ever before?
That’s quite hard for me to say, as I wasn’t really involved with youth orchestras before I began to conduct. But my feeling is that it probably is much higher. If so much attention is paid to international orchestras of young musicians, it must help to increase the level.

And how inspirational do you find the EUYO to conduct?
It’s hard to describe really. It’s unbelievable. Whenever you stand in front of a good orchestra, you feel that life is worth living!

Interview by Jeremy Pound

For details of the European Union Youth Orchestra’s US tour, click here.

Tour supported by the European Union, the 27 EU Member States, the Friends of the British Council, the British Council, Delta, KLM, Air France and Alitalia