There's Only One Place That His Talent Can't Take Vladimir Ashkenazy—Home Again to Russia
Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy left his homeland in 1963 not for the "artistic reasons" cited by most émigrés but for a woman—a stately blonde from Iceland named Thorunn Johannsdottir. Nine years later, when he applied for citizenship, the parliament in Reykjavik voted a special dispensation from its law requiring the newly naturalized to assume Icelandic names. Vladimir's own had become too eminent; indeed, the nationalistic press took to doting on him as "Iceland's son-in-law."
"I have never once regretted my decision," says Ashkenazy, now 42. Nor has the West, for although Ashkenazy lacks the headline panache of the defecting dancers, he is one of the great pianists in the world. In the last two months Ashkenazy has received bravos at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. In April Ashkenazy is booked with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but on that occasion he will conduct. He took up the baton in 1970 and now spends about a quarter of his time as a guest conductor of leading orchestras.
Though he covers more than 80,000 miles a year and earns well into six figures, Ashkenazy hankers to return to Russia, if only for performances. But the feelers he has put out since deciding to remain in the West (a decision made while concertizing in London) have not yielded an invitation, much less an assurance that he would not be detained. "I would feel physically unsafe," he says.
The Ashkenazys' five children (who range from 18 years to 13 months) speak Icelandic and English, but Vladimir's wife, who is nicknamed Dodie, cannot bring herself emotionally to teach them Russian. (Her own Russian learned at the Moscow Conservatory is only fair.) The couple once insisted Vladimir's leaving was not at all politically motivated. "I was too immature to articulate how I felt," the pianist says. "I didn't want to speak a lot of rubbish." But now they tell of how, after a 1958 trip to America, Ashkenazy was denounced for showing no pride in being a Soviet citizen and having disquieting inclinations toward modern art and music. He was acquitted of being an enemy of the state in a "mini-trial," but banned for three years from traveling abroad. During that time he met Dodie, who had gone to Moscow at age 20 to study piano under Vladimir's own tutor.
After the couple married in 1961, Dodie refused to adopt Soviet citizenship and the authorities announced that Vladimir's future travel plans would be severely curtailed. "When you've been subjected to such blackmail, how can you have any regrets about leaving?" he wonders. Yet he clearly does, having left behind his family, including pianist sister Elena, who, he says, was subsequently kept out of the Moscow Conservatory and international competitions, though she was qualified for both.
The son of a Jewish nightclub pianist and his Russian Orthodox actress wife, Vladimir spent a nomadic childhood as his parents moved about the Urals, Siberia and Tashkent because of World War II. In 1955 Ashkenazy entered the conservatory and at 18 won Belgium's prestigious Queen Elizabeth Prize, which confronts contestants with a composition which has never been played before. "I was a quick learner," he says, and he can still memorize a movement of a Beethoven sonata in two hours.
In 1978 Vladimir moved his family to an eight-bedroom stone house outside Lucerne, Switzerland to be closer to his European concert engagements. He retains a home in Reykjavik and a vacation place in Greece. Most of the time Dodie, 40, and the youngest of her brood tour with the virtuoso. "There is no marriage unless you're with your wife as much as possible," he says. Besides, someone must tend to the preoccupied pianist, who arrived at one concert wearing blue trousers with his tuxedo jacket. Dodie also cajoles him out of occasional bouts of what she calls "Russian gloom." The two make an annual retreat of several days to a lakeside cabin in northern Iceland. Second honeymoon? The émigré shakes his head and responds: "Dual solitude—we have a honeymoon all the time."
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