Since making his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 22, Israeli pianist Saleem Ashkar has built a solid reputation as one of the leading classical pianists of our time. Having performed with the Brussels Philharmonic, London Symphony, Wiener Philharmoniker, Orchestre National de Lyon, Royal Concertgebouw and many others, Ashkar has appeared at the Konzerthaus Berlin, Wigmore Hall in London, Queen’s Hall in Copenhagen and Vienna’s Musikverein, to mention a few, collaborating with a number of distinguished conductors including David Afkham, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Chailly, Pietari Inkinen, Fabio Luisi and Zubin Mehta.
In February 2023, Ashkar, who currently holds the position of Artistic Director of the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, travelled to Dubai to make his UAE debut at the Coca Cola Arena, headlining a concert which formed part of InClassica International Music Festival. Collaborating with the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra and Turkish conductor Valid Agayev, the pianist presented a work from the festival’s Composer-in-Residence Alexey Shor, namely his globally-renowned Piano Concerto No. 2, ‘From my Bookshelf’.
We sat down with Ashkar to speak to him about his views of Dubai, his experience of the concert, and his thoughts about the repertoire he presented.
This concert marked the first time that you have performed in Dubai. What do you think about the city?
“Yes, it’s my first time in Dubai, and it’s an absolutely magical place. Very, very special. Today when I was coming to the concert hall I saw this amazing skyline around the concert hall and then at the same time the muezzin is calling to prayer and for me, I come from a place where I’m not used to this combination of this imagery and this sound. Usually you either see this culture of skyscrapers and incredible lights and buildings in the West, or in the East you have small villages and then you hear the muezzin. But that combination of total modernity and that sense of pushing forward, of progressiveness, architecturally and technological and so on – and it’s obvious that it’s a place that’s pushing forward on all levels and that’s admirable – and then to see that and hear the tradition at the same time, that’s a very poetic moment for me.
At first you think it kind of doesn’t fit but then you realise, no it fits. It’s a very unique, beautiful combination and what I do appreciate is the fact that I see also that yes, architecture and business is one thing, but there’s also a push for education, there’s a push for culture at the same time, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
What about the concert itself? How was the experience for you?“Wonderful, just wonderful, and very enjoyable. Of course we had a surprise because the orchestra that was supposed to come – the Çukurova State Symphony Orchestra from Turkey – tragically could not because of what happened there, but sometimes in these spontaneous situations where there is little time, it sometimes acts like a spark and people become more creative and some magic happens in the movement, something spontaneous happens. So, you turn a situation which could be negative into something positive and this is what we did. And the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra and Mr Agayev were just wonderful, it all went very well with them both from the beginning.
Can you tell us a bit about the music that you presented this evening?
“I played the Piano Concerto No. 2, ‘From my Bookshelf’, from Alexey Shor. It’s actually my second time performing this piece and it really has incredible charm and humour and beauty. It has moments of lightness, deceptive lightness, because lightness doesn’t mean that it’s not deep; sometimes we think that only heavy things can be deep and that’s not true. He has the ability to bring humour and lightness with great inventiveness. One time Stravinsky said that ‘In one melody of Verdi there is more invention than a whole opera of Wagner’! Ok, so maybe he’s not fully accurate, maybe he has an agenda, an anti-Wagner agenda, but the idea of beauty and meaning and depth in lightness, that comes to mind with Shor.
And then there's the fact that he’s walking a very subtle and personal line in terms of his relationship with tradition. He’s not an avant-garde composer, by choice, and he embraces tradition but he knows how to break it in his own way, he knows how to be part of it harmonically, but on the other hand he knows when to break it so that it has its own accents, it has its own voice. There is a lot of inventiveness in that and I admire it greatly. So again, for me I love the lightness of it and the melodic inventiveness and the fact that it comes with this strong pinch of humour always, and that is so missing in so much modern music, the idea that music can be still sensual and humorous and so on. So it’s a great pleasure to play it!”
What do you think about this approach within contemporary composition?
“I think there is a new wave coming in. Shor is not alone in this, I think. There is a new wave at the moment to say that we have to write music that the public loves. It’s very interesting to have great complicated composers that nobody understands, and it’s also important to say ‘art lives on its own’, and that it doesn’t need anybody. Art doesn’t need publicity, art has its own logic. Art is like the great huge thousand-year-old tree in the middle of the forest, it is majestic and important without anybody tweeting about it, and in fact if you don’t tweet about it, it’s even better. But having said that, at the end there are millions of people who listen to Beethoven, there are millions of people who listen to Mozart, millions of people who listen to Wagner as well, and so, just in the same moment that art is independent of the spectator, at the same moment, paradoxically, it needs it. It’s both and you have to believe in both sides, and so, a modern art that is so avant-garde that it loses touch with an audience is also problematic. So there needs to be this balance.”
This evening’s concert was just one among many at this year’s InClassica International Music Festival, which is very possibly the largest classical music festival in the Middle East. What are your opinions about the festival itself, and the work it is doing to promote classical music in this region?
“Well, I think the future of this art form is outside of its traditional place. Because it’s traditional place is saturated, it’s traditional place is tired, Europe is tired. There are amazing orchestras in Europe but there’s also a sense that this art belongs to everybody, and its qualities are universal and it should be open to everybody. So tradition doesn’t mean a closed door. Tradition is an open door for everybody to join the tradition and so we make our own tradition here. So yes absolutely, it’s extremely important that the future of this music is in its openness, in its inviting everybody to join in, and not to close the door to anybody. Because if you look at the amount of great talent that is coming out of Korea out of China, Venezuela as well, so many places, you realise that already a long time ago we realised that this is for everybody. This is the beauty of music and so it should also belong here of course.”
One last question to end things. How would you say your own experience of the festival has been, looking beyond your own concert this evening?
“I’ve loved it, because the secret of a great festival is the people. As an artist you are travelling and you go here and come there and you arrive in one place and you immediately want to feel human connection. And so the secret of a great festival is yes, good organisation and yes of course, good music, but in the end it’s really the human connection and when you arrive here you feel it immediately, with everyone I’ve been in contact with. And this is the best thing because the minute you feel comfortable – and not comfortable in an artificial sense, but feeling a real sense of well-being with others – that’s when you’re not wasting your time, that’s when you’re living with other people and experiencing something, and that is something felt strongly here.”