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Marios Papadopoulos is the founder and director of Oxford’s professional symphony orchestra, Oxford Philomusica. For such a uniquely gifted musician, he is modestly reluctant to talk about himself. His mission is to communicate a passionate love of music.
Marios does not remember learning how to play the piano — but does recall a fascination with sound and a desire to reproduce it.
He recalled an incident when he was about six years-old.
“I used to stare at my father as he shaved and loved the rasping sound the razor made. I was driven to recreate that sound — and so I shaved off one of my eyebrows!”
“ Fifty years ago, I was given a small toy piano. I listened to music on the radio and replicated the tunes on its little keys,” he said.
“A great uncle, who was a fine violinist, recognised that I had a talent that needed nurturing. So he encouraged my parents to arrange piano lessons for me.
“Conducting is also teaching. It is a means of sharing my musical aspirations, knowledge and personal experience with other musicians.”
“I still have that toy piano which started my journey in music. I brought it with me to England, and would like to have it with me on the desert island.
“I was born in Limassol, Cyprus, in December 1954, but was brought up in Nicosia. When, at the age of 12, I had reached Grade 8 both piano and music theory, there were no opportunities to take my studies further in Cyprus. So my parents made arrangements for us to come to England.
“My childhood was rooted in music but, occasionally, I needed to escape and freedom took the form of my first bicycle which might be useful on the island,” Marios said.
He was not fluent in English when his family came to the UK, settling in Brent. Apparently, he was offered a scholarship to St Paul’s School, but his parents turned it down and sent him instead to Brent Comprehensive.
Marios has vivid memories of his early days in this country. “The warmth of the welcome I received was quite overwhelming. This country has given me so much, so many opportunities and I hope that I have been able to give something back,” he said.
“In Cyprus, I had two LPs. One was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and the other was a recording of Brahm’s Piano Concerto No2 by Sviatoslav Richter. I played them over and over again. When I arrived in London, I had an amazing experience. I was able to buy the scores of those two pieces and saw how that experience of sound was formed, how it had all come together. I shall never forget making that connection between the audio experience and the visual one. So I should consider taking those LPs, together with the scores.”
By the age of 14, he had obtained a Performers’ Diploma (ARCM) the Royal College of Music and, at 16, was the soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. But most memorable was his introduction to the Bath Festival in 1972.
“I met the composer, Michael Tippett, and he conducted me in Fantasia on a theme by Handel. I also met William Walton in Bath,” Marios said. “Aged 18, I won the Young Musician of the Year Award and my concerts were broadcast on Radio 3. I played all the Beethoven concertos. And, by my late teens, I had already begun to conduct.
“When I hear music I see shapes in it. My PhD thesis was based on that theme of shape in music. That was why I went into conducting. I can see the patterns going up and down in an almost mathematical manner. The concept is not tangible, but the baton represents that thought process in my mind, so I would like my baton on the island. I buy my batons at Guiviet of Mortimer Street in London and like them to be light, elegant and to have good balance,” he said.
“Away from the concert hall, Marios is a family man. “I like to be rooted,” he said. “When I married Anthi, in 1986, we moved into a house just up the road from my parents in Brent. We still live there with my two children, Michael and Stella. Family is very important to me.” Not surprisingly, Marios’s family is a musical one.
“Anthi teaches music and is a director of Oxford Philomusica and Michael is reading music at Trinity College where he has an organ scholarship. Stella plays the violin but wants to read chemistry at university.”
In Oxford, we have a very particular reason to be grateful that Marios and his parents made this country their home.
“I first visited Oxford in 1973 and loved it immediately Oxford has given me opportunities to better myself and I am constantly learning and in awe of the people I meet who inspire and educate me. It has given me a new opportunity to be creative, too,” he said. “Some people have described me as a maverick because I also enjoy being an entrepreneur. I loved founding Oxford Philomusica, even though I was warned against it, since the musical world is fraught with difficulties and the financial obstacles huge. But I actually enjoy the challenge of the fund raising, administrative and management side of the business.” Marios recently returned from a trip to Cyrpus where he conducted the Oxford Philomusica as part of the country’s Kypria Festival — a celebration marking 50 years of Cyprus’s independence.
“Oxford has provided me with a stable environment. The idea of travelling from one concert hall to another around the world does not appeal to me. I have conducted more than 200 concerts in Oxford. I feel so privileged to conduct at the Sheldonian. I love the intimacy of the space. I feel able to stretch out a hand and almost touch the audience. The Sheldonian, to me, is like a spiritual home — with a special but intangible atmosphere, so I would like to have it rebuilt on the desert island!”
However, our castaways can only have one object on the island, and rebuilding Oxford’s iconic concert hall doesn’t come within our budget. So what would our maestro’s ultimate choice be?
“Can I have my piano?” he said. “ For me, playing is not only about the sound, it is also a tactile experience. When I play, I am always motivated when someone is moved by the music. That touches me. That is why I perform.
“I remember my first exposure to opera, in my teens — it was The Marriage of Figaro — and how I marvelled at the human voice. From then on, I wanted to make the piano sing. That has remained my aim and it is what I teach my students. At least on the island I can do that, if I take my piano.
“But it will be hard leaving my home and family and Oxford and the Sheldonian. “ So his Steinway baby grand piano will join him on our island — and perhaps we might be able to smuggle his baton and music scores inside the piano stool.