Our regular contributor Christopher Axworthy reviews a recently published book by Mario Papadopoulos “Beyond Dreams and Aspirations: My Journey to Oxford”.
As Jessica Duchen so astutely comments Marios Papadopoulos’s book is about a remarkable adventure in music that is still evolving and ever growing: ‘This forthright memoir casts rare and valuable perspective on what it really takes to create a life in music’.
The book tells the story of a young pianist in Cyprus playing at the age of 7 to Gina Bachauer who immediately spotted his talent and brought him to London to study with Ilona Kabos. I remember a young olive skinned boy named Marios carrying Madame Kabos’s enormous handbag for her in Dartington. She was quite a formidable lady and when I played the Schumann Fantasie to her she told me that I feel it well. “It was so beautiful, disgustingly beautiful, darlink, it was disgusting and you would play it better if you were a better pianist!” It was tyrannical teaching of the old school that we have experienced a few years ago from the late Dmitri Bashkirov at the RCM. But Madame Kabos had a pair of superb ears and a sense of style that was extraordinary and you either adored her or hated her, there was no half way mark.
Gina Bachauer also found sponsors for Mario’s studies and even promoted his New York debut recital. After his fifth Queen Elisabeth recital in London in 1984 Mario realised that, ’Music is my life support. It has brought me great happiness, but also considerable distress. I felt I had reached high levels of achievement but at other times I knew I had failed miserably”. He explains that ‘the life of a globe-trotting international concert artist was not for me and I longed for a platform of my own where I could share my musical ideas and one might add ideas”.
It is this journey that is described in the book as Marios Papadopoulos is bewitched by the magic world of Oxford where he can envisage his utopia on the distant horizon. It is this voyage with its inevitable ups and downs that is told with the same precision and order which Mario himself says he must have around him in order to survive. None of this could have been done without the team effort of his family. As Marios himself says, ’Anthi worked as a full-time volunteer for 10 years. Over the years she has grown to be highly respected and admired by everyone. Her judicious handling of the finances has saved the orchestra from collapse’ At the 90th birthday celebrations for the veteran violinist and teacher Vahan Bedelian in 1985 as Mario “played a Beethoven sonata with Manoug Parikian, a young woman arrived to turn pages for me. Her name was Anthi Anastassiades! With her arrival, my existence changed immediately. She devoted herself to bettering our lives and to furthering my career. Anthi was to become the pillar of my life and a beacon of light in the years ahead’.
It is a story of passion, courage and humility as they searched for people that could sponsor their voyage to find the utopia that has been keeping them going with great sacrifices but also with great artistic satisfaction. Enriching the lives of all around them by creating not only an important symphony orchestra – the only permanent orchestra of Oxford University but also a series of events both educational and social that have enriched the musical world of Oxford and beyond. Some of the most revered musicians of our time have been involved and many return year after year to enjoy this warm intimate atmosphere of music making .
Jessica Duchen’s word of ‘forthright’ is exactly the spirit that Marios has adopted in his journey and in his description. What is missing are the human elements, the anecdotes, the many fascinating and moving details that have encircled and enriched this remarkable journey. As Marios says he is a man of action, precision and dedication and it is exactly this, without any frills, that he has tried to convey in his description of all that he has achieved in Oxford.
I too have been associated with Oxford for many years since I was a trustee of Rosalyn Tureck’s Bach Research Institute. Rosalyn was a great personality who lived in Oxford and would walk around the ancient city in her cloak and top hat. She took part in the first of the Oxford Philharmonic festivals and had a festival of her own too and I cannot believe that Marios does not have some personal memories of such an extraordinary encounter. I would often stay in Ewelme, the nearby village of my old piano teacher Vlado Perlemuter with his companion Joan Booth. I would come to the Summer Piano Festival which gives opportunities to young musicians to gain knowledge and experience playing in the masterclasses of artists of the calibre of Rosalyn Tureck, Menahem Pressler, Andras Schiff, Peter Frankl, John Lill, Stephen Kovacevich, Dame Fanny Waterman and many more besides. I would often come to Oxford during the year to hear the orchestra in the magnificent surroundings of the Sheldonian.
I once mentioned to Marios that there was a young Russian pianist who would love to come to his Summer Piano Festival but was in need of funding. Marios not only gave him a full scholarship to study but became a mentor of his for several years just as Gina Bachauer had been to him in his youth.
I was present too at the rehearsal of an all Mozart programme in the Sheldonian. Mozart Requiem and his last piano concerto with the ninety year old veteran Menahem Pressler as soloist. The orchestral musicians had come down for the final rehearsal from London and obviously just thought they would run through the concerto and then have a break in the pub before the main rehearsal of the Requiem. Well they had not counted on the perfectionism of Pressler who wanted to rehearse every bar and phrase with the loving care that his genius requires. Pressler was extremely upset at this rather cavalier attitude and Marios found himself torn between trying to avoid a revolution with the orchestral players or a walk out of the soloist.
Luckily we were able to calm Pressler and make him realise the historic importance of his playing in such a hallowed hall and to reassure him that the orchestra was full of the finest players who unfortunately had only a certain number of hours to rehearse! The concert was a wonderful success and not only the orchestra and Pressler were united in their praise for each other but also Dame Fanny Waterman gave her nod or should I say many nods of consent.
It was only in Oxford chez Marios that one could get to know so intimately these renowned figures of the music world. I said to Pressler that ‘you have so much in common with Dame Fanny in that you are the only two people I know that concentrate so fully on every single note that they listen to’. Pressler of course realised that but complained that when he was on the jury of Dame Fanny’s competition in Leeds, she insisted he sat next to her. Fanny never has ‘fifty winks’ in the afternoon, like many of the jury members during the very long and sometimes boring afternoon rounds of the competition. ’Sitting next to Dame Fanny I have to stay 100% awake too!’ affectionately moaned Pressler.
It is just these sort of anecdotes or personal recollections that are missing from an otherwise wondrous tale of a true giant bestriding the hallowed city of Oxford and way beyond in the name of music.
The final three chapters are dedicated to the ‘Thoughts on music ‘ from a thinking musician. There are some practical ideas and solutions that have been matured over a life time of music making at a very high level. Architectural Design – Motion in Music and Tonal Body are some in depth thoughts and solutions to musical problems. There is an added afterthought too of ‘Beat patterns and their application’ describing where the conductor’s beat lies!
Descriptions follow of the Oxford Philharmonic’s Outreach Work for Local Schools and Young People by David Haenlein and their Outreach Programme in Hospitals by Tony Robb and it just goes to show the scope that this remarkable activity has in the community it serves. Marios had the idea of a filmed concert streamed on YouTube which was made in December 2020 to thank the scientists for their Herculean efforts in producing a vaccine against COVID 19. A concert that included a work specially written for the occasion by John Rutter. Together with Sir Bryn Terfel it was initially intended as a thank you gesture for the scientists to view, but it attracted the attention of the national media and was watched by over 160,000 people worldwide.
Last but not least is the Coda in which Marios describes his aspirations for the orchestra and its work. He and his team have created the foundation stone of a monument that should continue it’s exemplary work long into the distance for future generations.
From the seven year old pianist being discovered by Gina Bachauer in Cyprus to the creation of the Oxford Philharmonic it has been a long and glorious journey indeed.