Ashkenazy will succeed Gianluigi Gelmetti, who began his tenure as chief conductor and artistic director in 2004 but announced last year that he would not renew his term when it expires at the end of 2008.
Born in the old Soviet Union and a longtime citizen of Iceland, Ashkenazy achieved world renown as a pianist in the years following his victories at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (1956) and the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (1962). Among his many honors are five Grammy Awards for solo and chamber music recordings between the years 1979 and 2000.
He took up conducting seriously in the 1980s and was appointed chief conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987, serving there until 1994. He has also been principal conductor of the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin (1989-99) and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (1996-2003). Since 2000 he has been music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and this summer he completes a three-year term as music director of the NHK Symphony, Japan's leading orchestra.
According to the The Sydney Morning Herald, Ashkenazy has been a regular guest conductor of the Sydney Symphony and is respected by its players. The paper also wonders how much time a musician so prominent on the international stage will actually spend in Australia (this had been an issue with Gelmetti's predecessor at the SSO, Edo de Waart), though the report also points out that Ashkenazy has longstanding family and friendship ties in the country.
SSO managing director Libby Christie said in today's statement that Ashkenazy will conduct at least 8 weeks of concerts in Sydney each year, as well as on tours to Asia and Europe; he has also committed to making recordings with the orchestra for the Japanese label Octavia Records. Other aspects of his work with the SSO will include advising management on programming, actively participating in auditions and ensemble development, involvement with the selection of guest conductors and soloists, and supporting the orchestra's fundraising, marketing and public relations efforts.