This is the tenth interview in my Classical Conversations Series which features British pianist Ashley Wass.
Described as an ‘endlessly fascinating artist’, Ashley is firmly established as one of the leading performers of his generation. He is the only British winner of the London International Piano Competition, prizewinner at the Leeds Piano Competition, and a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.
Increasingly in demand on the international stage, Ashley has performed at many of the world’s finest concert halls including Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Konzerthaus. He has performed as soloist with numerous leading ensembles, including all of the BBC orchestras, the Philharmonia, Orchestre National de Lille, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, RLPO, and under the baton of conductors such as Simon Rattle, Osmo Vanska, Donald Runnicles, Ilan Volkov and Vassily Sinaisky.
In June 2002 he appeared alongside the likes of Sir Thomas Allen, Mstislav Rostropovich and Angela Gheorghiu in a gala concert at Buckingham Palace to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a performance broadcast live to millions of viewers around the world. In recent years he has become a regular guest at the BBC Proms, making his debut in 2008 with Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto, and returning in following seasons to perform works by Foulds Stravinsky, Antheil, and McCabe.
Renowned for a broad and eclectic repertoire, Ashley has received great critical acclaim for his recordings of music from a wide range of styles and eras, with glowing reviews of his interpretations of composers such as Liszt, Franck, Beethoven and Bridge. His survey of Bax’s piano music was nominated for a Gramophone Award and his discography boasts a number of Gramophone ‘Editor’s Choice’ recordings and BBC Music Magazine ‘Choices’.
Much in demand as a chamber musician, Ashley regularly partners many of the leading artists of his generation. He is a frequent guest of international festivals such as Pharos (Cyprus), Bath, Ako (Japan), Cheltenham, Kuhmo, Mecklenburg, Gstaad, City of London, and Ravinia and Marlboro in the USA, playing solo recitals and chamber works with musicians such as Mitsuko Uchida, Steven Isserlis, Emmanuel Pahud, Richard Goode and members of the Guarneri Quartet and Beaux Arts Trio.
Ashley Wass is the Artistic Director of the Lincolnshire International Chamber Music Festival. The Festival has grown from strength to strength during his tenure, with sold-out performances of challenging repertoire and broadcasts on BBC Radio 3.
Ashley is currently a Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music, London, and is an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.
Ashley in action…
For those who prefer to read, here’s the transcript…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: British classic pianist, Ashley Wass, has carved out a very successful career playing concerts all around the world. He was a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and is a prizewinner too at the International Leeds Piano Competition and I am so delighted that he is joining me here today for one of my classical conversations here at the Royal College of Music in London. Welcome, Ashley.
ASHLEY WASS: Thank you.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m going to dive straight and ask you all about your musical education, how you started playing, why you started playing, what age. Did you come from a musical family?
ASHLEY WASS: Not at all. Actually my parents ran a guesthouse on the sea front at Skegness of all places [laughs].
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Quite different.
ASHLEY WASS: I know. Absolutely. And…And…For some reason, I’m not quite sure why we had an electric organ in the house. And when I was old enough, about 5, 6 or something like that, they decided that I should be the one to play it because none of them could. Umm, so through my early year I’ve went through this traditional waves of associate board examinations [Melanie interjects, “Right”] and most of my pieces were some popular or light classics. Really nice to play with the guests of the hotel with the Christmas carols at Christmas time and yeah, I’ve sort of got swept along and then I went to Chethams. That’s where I sort of feel that I’ve began my proper music education.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which teacher did you think really developed your piano playing the most. Which one was the most helpful?
ASHLEY WASS: Well I was with a man called David Hartking for seven years when I was at Chethams so from eleven to eighteen, which I think is such a crucial age [Melanie interjects, “Yes, it is.”] and unfortunately, he passed away after a couple of years I left for school but he was, I think just an invaluable part of my development. First, I don’t wish to be disrespectful to the teachers I’ve had prior to him, but he was the first teacher that I had who came from a really strong foundation, strong traditional teaching. He had wonderful teachers himself and I feel that he gave me a really good, solid foundation and of course from then I moved to the Academy and had lessons with Christopher Elton and with Hamish Milne. Hamish in particular, was a wonderful pianist. I mean, he can demonstrate so, so well and for me, actually in my own teaching now, that’s one of the key elements that I try to bring is actually to be able to demonstrate, say so much. So much in such a short time if you can play [Melanie interjects, “Yes”] and he was such a great colourist and he taught me so many things. It was a fantastic education. And the other great influences was Maria Curcio who was a student of Schnabel. An elderly Italian lady who lived in London and who I’ve met, actually she came to give master classes when I was 14 or 15 – something like that and had taken me under her wing. I used to come down a couple of times a term from Manchester, to have lessons with her. When I moved to London permanently, I lived a couple of minutes around the corner from her [laughs]. So I used to go regularly for lessons and she gave me free tuition and she was incredibly generous with her time. As a musician, she was exceptional.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, fantastic reputation she has.
ASHLEY WASS: She was, at the time when I met her, the most distinguished teacher, probably in the world. It was a great honour to be able to play to her and I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount from her.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So how did you develop your technique?
ASHLEY WASS: I remember, it’s very hard to say [laughs]
MELANIE SPANSWICK: [laughs] Are you one of those people who loves practicing Czerny studies? [laughs]
ASHLEY WASS: Not at all no! I can’t remember the last time I sat down and played a scale for the sake of it. I remember going through the books of Czerny, I remember Maria giving me the Brahms 51, which were invaluable and something I now give to my students as well. Umm, but a lot of my technique was developed through repertoire actually. I would have to say, I think, David, during those early years, he was fantastic at finding just the right pieces to play and finding the pieces that will develop areas of your technique that were perhaps lacking in comparison to others and working with you through those avenues rather than the business of giving you lots of etudes and scale which of course nobody really enjoys doing that much. You know, for a young boy who’s perhaps still uncertain if music is what he wants to do. I think a fantastic way to sort of engage them is to actually try and be very specific, very careful about the repertoire that you give them and you can learn so much from that without actually having to spend hours practicing scales and arpeggios.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s true. Now you were a prizewinner, as I said, at the Leeds Piano Competition and you won the London Piano Competition, so how did these shape and change your career, do you think? How important were they?
ASHLEY WASS: Umm. Probably very important is the honest answer but there are certain qualifications to that and London was something that I did when I was twenty and I entered it primarily for the experience of actually preparing repertoire. I had to prepare a lot of music. And at that age, I never sort of had the need to have so many pieces at my fingers at the same time. And, I didn’t expect to win. I didn’t expect to be accepted to the competition and then I expected to be knocked out of the first round and then in the semi-finals, I remember sitting on stage an they’re about to announce the prizes, I thought, Oh I’ll be third. Then they announced the third prize, I thought I’ll be second. You know, it was such a great shock to me when I came first. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for it at that time. [laughs] Ummm. But of course, I was already playing quite a lot of concerts by that stage. The difference was, the concerts that I started playing after that were perhaps more high profile. And you know, I got a recording after it, which many years later eventually led to a recording contract. It’s one of many kind of important building blocks in the development of a career but it’s not the kind of career-maker in its own right.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.
ASHLEY WASS: Leeds was…Umm…It was a strange experience and it was something that many people advised me not to do. I was very unsure about doing it myself. I mean, it was the last competition I did. I mean, I did very few anyway and that was absolutely the last one, I remember and at the semi-final stage, there were 12 semi-finalists and then 6 finalists, we were all sent to a room with a big platter of food actually, I remember, and everybody was too nervous to eat it because we were just waiting for them to come and collect us to give us the results. And…Umm. It was such a long time then every time someone would come in, everybody’s head was swinging around in anticipation and eventually the twelve of us were marched to this room and the name, six names were read out. It was the first time we’ve heard of a firing squad. Now I remember calling my girlfriend at the time immediately after that saying look, if I ever think about entering another competition again, just remind me of how I feel right now. I mean, I was the lucky one that night but it was a horrific experience to go through and I realized that that was it. I think being one of the very few British pianists that have had success in a competition; inevitably, I benefitted quite a lot from it in terms of the number of engagements I got but having said that, I was BBC engineer at the time and it was very hard to differentiate between what that was bringing, what Leeds was bringing in, what the management was bringing in so I don’t know hand on heart, how much of an impact it directly had. I do think that, in a way, competition winners or prize winners are sometimes viewed with a degree of suspicion. That’s my theory [laughs] I know many pianists who are genuinely wonderful pianists and wonderful musicians, who have had immense success in many competitions but are somehow viewed rather negatively because of it. You know, there’s a stereotype that to win a competition you must be, somehow, a rather boring player. You must conform to, you know, sort of strict regulations and rules of piano playing. It’s not true. There are wonderful people who have come through that route and the idea that if you are really special, you do not need to do a competition, it’s nonsense. It’s just not that way for everybody. If you’re lucky, it is but it’s not that way for everybody and I feel that some of those people that I know who have had great success and are genuinely deserving of immense careers and who have not had those careers because they had competition success that doesn’t sit very easy with me. I feel there’s a certain kind of lack of justice there. So competitions are sometimes a necessary evil but I think there is a danger to them tp.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’re a professor of piano here at the Royal College, do you advise your students to do them or do you tell them to do other ways of establishing their career?
ASHLEY WASS: I…if a student comes to me and asks to enter a competition because they’ve done the research, they’ve done the homework and they’ve found something that they really like to do, I don’t discourage them. I think, on the whole, they are a positive experience but, I think the main reason that the student should do a competition is not because of the success and the rewards that can come from the award but actually rather from the benefits of preparing for it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.
ASHLEY WASS: For many students, it just focuses the mind and it really makes them work hard and they have to take a huge amount of repertoire into their fingers and into their brains at the same time. And it’s one of the few occasions when as a student, you actually need to do that; as I said for me as a twenty year old it was the first time I had to prepare five or six hours of repertoire. You know, up until that point, you know you have a 90 minute recital here and then a month later, maybe you have a concerto there, and then you never sort of take that amount of repertoire onboard so it’s a fantastic way of learning. You have to learn and work across at such detail and again, some students don’t always find the motivation to do in front of all other things but I think if you look at it as a vehicle by which to really hone your preparations, then it’s worthwhile.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which composers are you drawn to? What do you really enjoy playing?
ASHLEY WASS: Umm. It’s very hard to say. I mean, I grew up in so much Beethoven, so much Brahms, some of those kind of early general romantic composers are very much my first love. I have real fascination for quirky, airy repertoire; a repertoire which is played quite so often ummm.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s my next question because I notice you play a lot of British composers. How did that come about?
ASHLEY WASS: I have. Well, I mean the British thing came…It’s rather actually misrepresentative of me. I recorded a disc of Bax for Naxos back in, I can’t remember now, back in 2000, early 2000, which was really nicely received and led to a recording contract and we had this loose arrangement to record three discs a year over a period of five years. Two of those discs will be British and one would be so-called international repertoire. It didn’t quite work out that way and the reality of what that I was recording a lot of British repertoire and so that it what I became known for. Actually, when you break it down and you think that that repertoire takes up a three or four day recording session and it’s not, or what was rarely, part of my concert performances which take up 100 days of my year but because the recording is the thing that gets reviewed in countless publications and gets lots of PR around it…..
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It was nominated for a gramophone award.
ASHLEY WASS: Yeah, which was lovely but they are the things which you became known for so actually although the British repertoire, in real terms, was just taking up a very small percentage of my work because it was the thing getting the most publicity, it’s the thing that people associated me with.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes
ASHLEY WASS: So the last few years, I’ve really withdrawn from that. There are exceptions. There are pieces that I’ve recorded. That I want to re-record actually that I love very dearly that I feel very passionately about.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Which composers, which British composers do you particularly like? I mean, you obviously love Bax.
ASHLEY WASS: Well, I mean Bax, I have a slightly mixed relationship with, I mean there are pieces that I love, pieces that I, I recorded a lot of Bax. I actually lost count of the number of discs that I’ve done.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Because he wrote tremendous amount of music.
ASHLEY WASS: He did. He did. Of course when you’re recording complete works of one composer there are inevitably works which are less strong than others and there are pieces that I love so much but a lot of things that I actually would never wish to perform so we have to take that into content. I think Frank Bridge, a fantastic composer. Really wonderful composer. His piano sonata I think is a masterpiece of the very highest level. That’s something I’d love to come back to and record again and I’m not terribly happy with the recording that was released and I’d love to go back to that. But, as a whole, the role of British music in my performing career is quite minimal. It’s been great to have, in some ways, it’s led to opportunities, which otherwise would have never existed. The Proms have asked me to play Vaughan Williams and John Fowles and things there because I’m associated with that music and in festivals in countries all over the world, occasionally, they ask me to go and play if they’re focusing on British music because again, I’m associated with that but in the last 2, 3, 4 years, I’ve really had to…kind of withdraw slightly and focus much more on music which is my true love. And to explore…rather than saying I love this composer or I love that composer what I really enjoy doing is building programmes around a particular concept and find works to fit into that. I love programme building and creating and in that way, you can’t really allow yourself room to become obsessed with one or two composers. You have to have very wide imagination.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Which venues have you really loved performing in? Which ones stand out.
ASHLEY WASS: Quite often, they tend to be pretty unexpected places. Rather than saying Wigmore Hall or Carnegie Hall, the ones that I really remember actually are really unusual things like a few years ago I went to Cuba to play and there was an old, semi-derelict monastery right in the center of Havana and I gave a recital there. It was a beautiful piano, which have been donated by Japanese businessman, a brand new Steinway model D. It was one of the best pianos I’ve ever played. The venue was just magical and so atmospheric, you could hear the car horns beeping away outside! But there’s something about that. The acoustic was fantastic and I remember that, I’ve always remembered that as a really special place to have played. Sometimes you go to little churches dotted around and you find things that are just magical. Really acoustic gems. ( Melanie: they stick in your mind) They do. Actually they’re the ones I remember much more than the grand symphonic halls.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What’s your favorite musical memory?
ASHLEY WASS: I have three, If I can. [laughs] In 2009, I fulfilled one of my dreams which was to trek to Everest base camp. I love mountains. I love hiking. This was a fantastic thing. A couple of days after I returned from Nepal, I had a concert in Cyprus. It was a piano trio concert with cellist, Alexander Chaushian and Daishin Kashimoto who is one of the concertmasters of the Berlin Phil. They’re really good friends and we play together a lot. We had just great time together performing on stage and I’ve been in Cyprus every year for the last how many years so that the promoters there also are really good friends. I was playing with good friends, for good friends. We were playing great music and I hadn’t touched a piano for about a month because I’ve been hiking. Somehow, I wasn’t expecting it to be a great concert but the freshness and inspiration that I’ve taken from the scenery that I been witnessing just a few days earlier, it was inspirational actually and somehow it just kind of gelled and I had a great time. I remember also my Proms debut not so much that it was a Proms debut but actually although as a young man growing up in the UK it is something which you dream doing of, which is great but mainly because I got engaged to my wife just literally just a couple of minutes before going on stage so it was a very nice way to remember that. Then finally to make reference to Maria again, I remember when she first came to Chets and she gave a week of master classes and she selected 3, 4, 5 students to play in a concert at the end, the ones she enjoyed working with the best. I played first movement of Beethoven 4 with a second piano not with orchestra, and I think I was first in the concert and I disappeared after my performance to my dormitory and hid in there for a while and someone suddenly came knock to my door and said Maria wants to see you. I remember thinking oh goodness, what have I done wrong! and I was terrified [laughs] my heart was pounding and I was wondering what she was going to say because I’ve seen her on television with documentaries about her with her really famous students and it was just a dream to have met her. She was the teacher that I idolized. She called me over and said Ashley I, remember now, she said, actually you’re a great pianist, a great musician but most of all a great artist and I want to work with you and that was a huge point in my life. I did. I come down regularly for lessons with her. For me, getting my lessons with her was awesome.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So what exciting plans have you got for the rest of the year?
ASHLEY WASS: I’ve got a busy year with concerts and recordings which is lovely and I just started a new piano trio with Matthew Trussler and Thomas Carroll, which is really exciting actually. We’ve got some great plans for that with various new commissions which I think are lovely so and again, recordings for that as well. Just about to go to California next month for a series of concerts and, concerts in lots of different places. I’m trying to spend as much time as possible at home because we have a young a baby in the house [laughs] it’s always always a pain when I have to go away, as much as I enjoy this musical life. I have to say this is such a wrench to leave my daughter. I try not to go away too much, but it’s busy and it’s a good thing, I think.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So what does playing the piano mean to you?
ASHLEY WASS: It means a life of freedom, a life of which I’m mostly in control of and I’m my boss, which is nice and but most of all, I think it means a form of expression. I’m quite a shy person actually and the piano is one place where you feel that you can give everything of yourself without inhibition. You don’t have to…actually, there’s no room to be shy. You can’t be possibly shy at the piano so I think that’s a mean of expression for me, somebody who perhaps doesn’t always find it easy to express myself with words. It’s just a great vehicle of which I can give everything of myself.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you so much for joining me today, Ashley.
ASHLEY WASS: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.