As JWR completes its redesigned website and launched the International Directory of Fine Arts and Film, it seemed particularly appropriate to have a conversation with Emanuel Ax. His magnificent recording of Brahms&rsquo Variations of a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 was the very first classical CD review to appear on these pages (cross-reference below).
By happy coincidence he was appearing at the McCallum Theatre just in the midst of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Already at the film fest, I seized the opportunity to attend the performance (cross-reference below) and sit down backstage in the Green Room and have a few words with the remarkable pianist just prior to the concert.
Our Canadian connection seemed a good place to start.
“When I was ten or eleven, my family moved from Poland to Winnipeg where we had a distant relative. While there I studied with Jean Broadfoot. Unfortunately—I can still remember trips on the Selkirk trolley!—we had to move to a bigger city [New York] because my dad’s field of speech and voice therapy was so new at that time it was difficult to find work.
“I have played in Winnipeg many times since and love going back. Participating in a benefit concert for Ms. Broadfoot was a great pleasure,” he recalled.
Audiences north of the 49th parallel will have several opportunities to hear Ax in the coming months. Québec City will soon enjoy the Palm Desert recital, for the Montréal Symphony Orchestra Mozart’s sublime C Major Concerto (K. 503) is on the program near the end of March and, performing alongside his wife, Yoko Nozaki, Toronto music lovers will be treated to Bartók’s Double Piano Concerto and Richard Strauss’ Burleske in a pair of concerts with the Toronto Symphony.
With so much recital repertoire from which to choose, we explored the genesis of his current program. “The Schubert Impromptus [Op. 142] are new for me; I’ve been working on them for about a year now and am excited about playing them. Similarly, the Liszt works I’ve tried to play for a long time—they still challenge me. Given Liszt’s huge admiration of Schubert’s work, it seemed natural to bring the two composers together.
“I like to think that in terms of solo recitals I can select anything that I want to play. The nice thing about getting a little bit older is that people tend to follow whatever I play. They know me and over the years [through live concerts and recordings] we’ve developed a trust. But it’s also heartening to see so many younger pianists like Lang Lang and Evgeny Kissin coming along. They are so professional—and at such an early age. There was a gap between older conductors and their successors but now there’s a wealth of young ones especially Gustav [Gustavo Dudamel begins his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009] and Alan Gilbert [taking over the helm of the New York Philharmonic also in 2009].”
The years ahead are especially rich in notable anniversaries for composers of piano repertoire. Haydn [died May 31, 2009]; Chopin and Schumann were both born in 1810—remarkably Ax shares the same Natale day (June 8) as the German master. Special programs have been planned.
“To celebrate these anniversaries [Chopin/Schumann] I’ve designed a set of three programs; each will have a commissioned work [e.g., John Adams] and I’ll be collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma and Dawn Upshaw. As for Haydn, I’ve already recorded over 30 sonatas, perhaps we’ll do the rest of them.”
Let’s certainly hope so. The results to date have been exceptional. As to the 2010 commemorative programs, can’t wait for those celebrations to begin! JWR