Until he was eight, Marios Papadopoulos lived in Cyprus with his parents, neither of whom were musicians. An uncle heard him tinkling on a toy piano, spotted a hint of talent and encouraged him to take up music lessons. After he'd taken and passed his grade 8 piano exams, his parents, believing that Marios had now outgrown musically the island's then facilities for piano teaching and playing, took the momentous decision to uproot themselves and settle in an unknown Britain. By the age of 18, such was his prodigious progress that the critic Bryce Morrison was saying in The Times:
'In embryonic form, he [MP] has all the attributes of one of the world's greatest players.'
Heady stuff, and indeed Mr Papadopoulos tells me that subsequently many doors opened to him. I was interested to know why in later times he has seemed to place his piano solo work a little more in the background than formerly. Is it pressure of conducting and overseeing the development of the Oxford Philharmonic's work, with all the myriad artistic and business calls on his time? Not quite, he replies, it's more that the life of the piano virtuoso is essentially a lonely one - travel, hotel rooms, constant changes of musical partners under a concentrated spotlight - whereas he is essentially a private person, rooted in community and with a strong preference for creating and working from a base. Here he's thinking both of his home life - he has lived for more than 40 years in the same house - and the musical entity he has set up and developed. But as it happened, he was due in the recording studio the following day to record with Maxim Vengerov, one of the world's great violinists, part of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas in their ongoing project.
We pass on to discussing the Oxford Philharmonic which, as the Philomusica, he founded 18 years ago. What comes over here is his intense pride in the orchestra, his determination not to stand still, and his wish to pass on in due course a secure legacy to a successor (he's now 60, a mere stripling by professional music standards; a year younger than Simon Rattle who will be descending from the clouds in September next year to take over the LSO in the guise of The New Messiah). I comment that in the last couple of years there's been a noticeable changing of the guard in the string section, and a greater continuity of playing personnel. He tells me these things have been elements of the detailed business plan he drew up in 2014/2015. Nor is the OPO an insignificant employer; nowadays it has 9 full-time employees and 7 part-timers. Strings players have been recruited from Eastern Europe, and the freelance musicians that form the core of the orchestra are expected to take up a minimum of 80% of the work that the Philharmonic offers them. Maxim Vengerov is on record as saying;
'I feel a special bond with Marios Papadopoulos, this superb orchestra and the city of Oxford which, for me, creates a perfect environment for music-making.'
Funding of the Orchestra is a constant pre-occupation given the relatively small size of the Sheldonian and consequent fairly modest ticket revenues. I am told that every concertgoer's ticket purchase is heavily subsidised, with the shortfall having to be made up by corporate donors and, importantly, the private generosity of patrons, friends of the OPO and sponsors of individual concerts. When I say that presumably the University provides funding in view of the OPO's status as 'Orchestra in residence at the University of Oxford' it turns out that there is in fact no direct funding from the University. Mr Papadopoulos is proud of the contribution the orchestra makes to the city's economy.
I ask whether Oxford needs a larger, dedicated concert space, especially given the uncomfortable seating and spartan facilities for both players and audiences. No, I'm told, the unique setting and proximity of audience to players is an asset to be treasured. The financial situation may seem satisfactory, though it's evident that a great deal of running goes on behind the scenes to keep abreast of the game. Mr Papadopoulos strikes a warning note when he says: 'When I go, some funding will go with me'.
So what of the future? There's a clear intention to continue to place chamber music and the summer piano festival (beginning on 30th July) at the forefront of activities, while the steadily growing profile of the Orchestra is now attracting the big names of European music - witness the close involvement of Maxim Vengerov and Andras Schiff (from whom sprung a thrilling Beethoven Piano Concerto 5 just the other day) and the recent coup of enticing American soprano Renee Fleming to Oxford. That day people travelled from far and wide to hear her. These giants cannot be paid at their full rate - which they're willing to accept in order to play in this city with this orchestra and this conductor. As we wind up the interview, I ask whether Daniel Barenboim can be lured to Oxford - very difficult, not least because he would have to come as a package with one of his associated orchestras. Complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies - possibly, but under another conductor. More Mahler and Bruckner - on the cards.
We part, and Mr Papadopoulos goes to prepare to attend the evening's Bach and Vivaldi concert - a charming, modest man, ploughing a deep furrow of industry and dedication to the City and the cause of British music.