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Askonas Holt interview

You’re fresh back from a tour with Neeme Järvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande performing the complete Rachmaninov piano concerti, how did it go?
It was very inspiring. I have a huge admiration for Neeme Järvi. I’ve listened to many of his recordings since my childhood and he continues to inspire me with his artistic freedom and the sincerity of his interpretations. We didn’t even have to rehearse as much because there was a really good connection from the beginning that was such an enjoyable and inspiring experience. It was quite remarkable working with him because I felt liberated and very free to simply express myself.

Do you find that freedom something you aspire to?
Neeme is at the point in his artistry where he has freedom of expression and a freedom of simply not being bound by some of the problems our subconscious minds create in the earlier stages of artistic development. I am constantly thinking about those boundaries, things that limit our expression, and how to surpass that.

What are these boundaries?
Boundaries can differ from one artist to another – our own expectations of how a piece of music should be played already puts some kind of pressure and it limits our inner freedom sometimes to simply dissolve into the piece being played, to be selfless in the interpretation. I found the experiences with Järvi very inspiring. I had a similar experience with Vladimir Ashkenazy when I recorded the complete Prokofiev piano concerti with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Do you see maestri such as these as mentors in some way?
It’s the responsibility of every artist to find their own identity and their own way of sharing the music with the world. Most of the time I try to struggle through myself but I find I get many good indirect lessons from working with conductors. I’ve learnt an enormous amount of things from great masters like themselves. After my orchestral performances with Neeme, even my solo performances took a different shape. I guess those experiences on stage of sharing the joy of Rachmaninov together and feeling those moments of unity with the audience gave me a glimpse to the path of achieving that, so those are very valuable experiences for me.

Is that ‘unity’ what you are aiming for in every performance?
For quite a few years I’ve been thinking about so called artistic truth on stage and how to achieve it. I see myself as a connection point between the music, the world of the composer and the audience. Ultimately the aim is to connect to and unite all of the listeners together in one emotional impulse throughout every piece being played. Not many things in this world can unite people – no form of diplomacy could ever do that.  I think that music comes the furthest in revealing that perhaps on a deeper level we are all quite similar: when the audience reacts in one wave of emotion that to me is the most incredible and inspiring thing.
The goal is to come as close as possible to a nirvana with every piece that is being performed.

It sounds like a spiritual experience for you?
Today, with so much emphasis on the material side of life, music has an important role as a reminder of one’s inner world. I don’t see music as some sort of religion but believe in its power as a positive force in society.  
Music reflects human emotional life more than anything I know, and this power can lead to special moments of revelation in performance.
I take a lot of inspiration from the Eastern ways of meditation and the concept of one’s path to enlightenment.
I think music reveals areas in our inner worlds, which perhaps comes somewhat close to those ideas.
I wish there was one recipe for achieving that every time!

Do you feel an obligation to perform?
I feel an obligation to get to an artistic purity and truth because of the abilities that were given to me. It does feel like an obligation to try and find a way to connect to audiences every single time no matter about other factors, piano quality or the hall or anything else.

You set yourself very high targets. The final few concerts of your recent tour are a case in point: you performed all the Rachmaninov concerti and the Paganini Rhapsody in two evenings!
I like challenges and I like to stretch my boundaries so that I can be more comfortable and therefore have more freedom to express myself on stage. Doing these crazy projects like the Rachmaninov concerti is not trying to prove anything – actually it gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of additional stamina that is very helpful in heavy schedules.

It must have been very intense.
It was less challenging physically and emotionally than I thought. Getting into it in the 1st concerto and moving on with the 2nd and 3rd – it was such an uplifting experience. I was in the zone. It was just a great feeling of joy and a wish to play more and more. The audience shared it, we all shared it together and that unity with the audience gave me more energy. It was an overwhelming experience without feeling the burden of so many notes!
In those moments of liberation my mind stops trying to tell me things, you just dissolve into the world of the piece being played and simply live it to the fullest.

After growing up in the Ukraine you ended up living in Sydney where you stayed for nine years and became an Australian citizen in the year 2000. These are such different places – have your surroundings influenced you as a musician?
I hope I took the best things from both places into my personality and way of thinking. Ukrainian and Russian culture is very rich. I feel very blessed to have been influenced by that in my childhood years and always carry that in my heart.
Living in Australia gave me a completely different perspective on music and on myself really. It gave me a new sense of freedom which I couldn’t even imagine in the Ukraine. Perhaps that was the most precious thing about Australia, the freedom both artistically and personally. It continues to inspire me and help me be open to ideas and to finding artistic truth and sincerity on stage.

And now you are based in Berlin where your surroundings can influence you again.
Yes, German composers are a huge part of the pianist’s repertoire, and trying to understand them is part of the reason we moved to Berlin.  I am hoping that this environment will help me understand German music on a deeper level: to understand the language, to understand the culture and the shades of people’s mentality here and so on. I think the magic in music is precisely in the passion between the notes – to find the right space and the right breath and pulse of every piece is the key.  These are the questions I am trying to search for here.

So what music are you working on now?
I am absolutely crazy about Mozart. I am preparing a concerto, K567 in C Major, which I will perform with Sydney Symphony Orchestra in February next year, and I’m learning a few sonatas as well.
I am enchanted by Mozart’s ability to create purity. There is a very fragile and precious feeling of sincerity and pure beauty that is in his music, yet also we find tragedy and drama. I am not the first person to describe these great qualities of course and there are many things we could speak about, but obviously I would love to find my own approach.  It is proving to be very enjoyable experience.

Where will you be performing?
I will be doing the Mozart as part of a big tour in Australia and New Zealand.  Also coming up I have an exciting project with the NHK Symphony Orchestra and a recital at the Vienna Konzerthaus as well as further concerts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Masters Pianists Series. I have plenty of fantastic things to look forward to and a lot to prepare for!

It’s so busy when you are travelling – do you have time for anything outside of music?  Do you have any other ways of relaxing?
I try to get into meditation – and I’ll keep trying! It’s a blessing and a curse because I am constantly practising in my head. It never goes away; subconsciously I am always thinking about phrasing and fingering, dynamics and ideas so I guess it’s always there.   
I love to go to the sauna – and to the gym.  It’s a really healthy experience exercising, it’s something far away from music and yet it can really clear the mind.  But more than anything I love spending time with my wife and eighteen month old daughter, which is the biggest joy.

You are also involved in charity work.
Yes, I am an ambassador to Theme and Variations Young Pianist Trust, a charity in Sydney which supplies young talented musicians with scholarships to further their studies abroad. I also support another charity (Opportunity Cambodia), which builds schools and education centres in Cambodia – I have got extremely interested in this and I’ve played a number of concerts, which help build the centres.   
It’s important for me to do it.  I feel very lucky that I am able to raise money by playing – I think it’s fantastic that music can achieve that.

You’re still only 28 – how do you see the way ahead?
I try not to look too far in the future.  I look as far as my concert schedule and try to do my very best!  I know this path of musicianship is endless – one can keep discovering and rediscovering so I consider myself lucky that I can do this until my old age.  
 
© Nina Large

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