Friday, September 10, 2010

When to Applaud, by Emmanuel Ax

On September 25, Mr. Ax will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. If you plan to attend, read below, and think twice about not applauding at the end of the first movement!

All of us love applause, and so we should – it means that the listener LIKES us! So we should welcome applause whenever it comes. And yet, we seem to have set up some very arcane rules as to when it is actually OK to applaud. I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be “allowed”, or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the 5th piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed. Mozart often wrote to his family that certain variations or sections of pieces were so successful that they had to be encored immediately, even without waiting for the entire piece to end.

I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty.

--I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction.--

On the other hand, sometimes I wish that applause would come just a bit later, when a piece like the Brahms 3rd Symphony comes to an end – it is so beautifully hushed that I feel like holding my breath in the silence of the end. I think that if there were no “rules” about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time, and if we feel like expressing approval, we should be allowed to, ANYTIME! Just one favor – even if you don’t like a concert of mine, please PLEASE applaud at the end anyway.

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.