Friday, September 10, 2010

Emmanuel Ax

There was a time when the Hartford Symphony regularly played host to some of the greatest figures in symphonic music.

Lotte Lehmann sang a Wagner program in 1939.

During Fritz Mahler's time, guests included the iconic pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, and the Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre (Mrs. Leonard Bernstein).

Without a doubt, Arthur Winograd's reign as music director was the richest for guest artists: violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh; cellists Jacqueline du Pre and Yo Yo Ma; sopranos Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Birgit Nilsson; pianist Van Cliburn, and flutist Jean Pierre Rampal. Benny Goodman played on the pops series, and Arthur Fiedler conducted a pops program, and two notable composers were guest conductors: Aaron Copland and Aram Khachaturian.

Michael Lankester was no slouch, either, having invited violinists Nigel Kennedy and Joshua Bell, contralto Marilyn Horne, composer Michael Tippett (who conducted one of his works), and the pianist/conductor/comedian Victor Borge.
Mr. Ma returned.

Early in his tenure, Maestro Lankester invited Emmanuel Ax to perform a Mozart concerto. Four years later, in 1990, Mr. Ax returned with his wife, Yoko Nozaki, to perform a Bartok work and another piece, Mozart's Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in Eb major, which the duo will return to play on September 25. (Those of us in Hartford can feel fortunate, as the duo is advertised as 'not available' for the 2010-11 season.)

For their return trip, the two of them may note several changes in the past twenty years -- a new piano (purchased several years ago by the Bushnell), a new concert hall (the Belding, which debuted in 2001), and a different music director. . . though I expect Manny and Yoko will recognize many familiar faces still in the orchestra.

My first performancing experience with Yo Yo Ma came after a long association with him that began in Southern California and continued in Pittsburgh. The same is true of Mr. Ax, who came to Tampa to perform Strauss's Burleske when I was Resident Conductor of the Florida Orchestra in the early 1990s. What struck me immediately about this artist was his radiant joy, and his temperament. Even in the flashiest of passages, there is always a soul to Ax's pianism.

He was a guest in Pittsburgh a number of times during my years there, and a favorite memory is sitting with him while the orchestra rehearsed a symphony by Haydn. (For those of you who are not performers, it is extremely rare to find a solo pianist sitting in the audience while the orchestra rehearses other works on the program. "My gosh," he said, bouncing in his chair, "this is such great music. . . Why don't more orchestras perform Haydn?") Oh, and how often does one hear a pianist talk about harmonic adventurism in Bizet's Carmen ? (Don't believe me? go to his blog:

Horatio Gutierrez gave a beautiful rendering of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto in Hartford several years ago, but I will never forget Ax's performance of this work in Pittsburgh. From the very first chord, played so poetically, it became immediately apparent we were all in for a unique experience with this masterwork, the most intimate of Beethoven's five concertos for the piano.

And to give you an example of Ax's daring, he did something with the New York Philharmonic that few pianists would agree to do. While the orchestra played Ive's Unanswered Question, Ax sat at the piano, waiting . . . just as the final strains of Ives died away, he began the Beethoven. It was a heavenly segue. A friend of mine reported on the event as "pure poetry." In effect, Beethoven became the answer to Ives's question.

Emmanuel Ax, a poet among pianists.

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