June 25, 2024


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For 50 years, Emanuel Ax has made music sound just right

For 50 years, Emanuel Ax has made music sound just right

“A young pianist with the unforgettable name of Emanuel Ax does one thing before he plays a note,” New York Times critic Donal Henahan. books in 1973. “But brand identification, as the advertising men call it, does not help in the long run unless the product is delivered, and it is fortunate that Mr. Ax’s gala at Alice Tully Hall on Monday night bore the seal of quality.”

The occasion was the Ax’s New York debut, and he was the opening boom to the banner some years ago. At the Marlboro Festival in Vermont that summer, Ax gave him a gift The first gig With Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist he spent his career playing and joking with, the friend who… calls His “big brother I never had”. And soon he was there date In the Young Concert Artists Series, Carnegie Hall appearancea victory at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition, in February 1975, the first eloquent song registration.

This seal of quality has become indelible, and has endured ever since. Of course, Ax, 74, protests that the career he enjoyed over the half-century after the Opening Ceremony in his hometown was largely the product of good fortune. It doesn’t matter Avery Fisher’s award or award 19 Grammy Award nominations (and eight wins), his long list of premieres or his generosity and ease as chamber music partner to Ma and other enthusiastic collaborators. Even now, Ax would only reluctantly admit that he had so much talent at all.

“I just started, and I stuck with it; I loved it,” Ax said of the piano during a recent interview at Tanglewood, where he was joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For Brahms Concerto As he did many times before. “I think enjoying it is a talent in itself.”

This is Manny, as everyone calls him. He had said things like this forever, and sought to share the spotlight or direct it entirely elsewhere. His humility, enveloped in a joking smile and famous good spirit, is at the heart of both his piano playing and his personality.

“Whatever his musical decisions are, they will never attract attention,” said conductor Eisa-Pekka Salonen, who has known Ax for four decades and will premiere Anders Heilborg’s Piano Concerto with him. San Francisco Symphony in October. “In the best sense of the word, he is cutting himself out of the picture.”

Does that mean that the ax is taken for granted? After all, how many artists have been performing at his level for so long? How many people have treated us with the same confidence, taste and common sense as he? How many people have possessed his ability that is no different from his ability late colleague Bernard Haitink, to make music sound so simple, right?

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Ax ranks among the best American pianists. However, he would never admit it. In Ma’s words, “He doesn’t go around saying, ‘And I did this.'” In fact, Ma remembers that when Ax told him this article was happening, he said, “I don’t know why they did that.” Re-do this.

“I told him it was because he was old,” Ma said with a laugh.

Ma — who has probably heard him play more than anyone else, save for pianist Yoko Nozaki, Ax’s wife since 1974 — has a theory about why Ax is the way he is. “The one thing I can safely say, in the 50 years that I’ve known him, is that he operates under a very strict code of conduct,” he said.

Ma continued that the code means that Ax never speaks ill of other pianists, and does what he can to support them instead. He insists on being nice, and looking on the bright side of things. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to build trust with his fellow artists because music, after all, depends on it.

“Somewhere along the line, he saw some things he didn’t like, and decided he wouldn’t be,” Ma explained. He saw the consequences, which is why the Code of Conduct exists. It is not an arbitrary thing.

The ax was born In the Soviet Union in 1949, in what is now Lviv, Ukraine – although it is still called Lwów, the Polish name it had in the interwar years. During the Holocaust, his parents, Joachim and Helen, they survived the concentration camps but lost, he said, “everyone”. They married after the war and left for Warsaw when Ax was seven years old. He did not return to Lviv until six years ago, when he was Visit Invited by Philip Sands, whose book East-West Street poignantly recounts the history of this contested city.

Ax said he only really remembers the opera house where he first heard the music, but his mother heard him talk about darker memories, too: “I think he remembers a big parade in town, and he knew the exact place where I was standing.” He was. He backtracked and realized that it was when Stalin died.”

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She drove from Warsaw to Winnipeg, and from Winnipeg to Manhattan, where the family settled in a rooftop apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall. Ax was 12 years old, and he was in the auditorium where he was playing works by Beethoven and Schoenberg in Aprilbecame his playground. “I lived in the place,” he said.

His path has been crossed by great pianists, seniors like Arthur Rubinstein and younger artists like Vladimir Ashkenazi, and he speaks of them with the excitement of an admirer and the insight of a colleague. For Emil Gilels, he keeps the enthusiasm going.

“I think he’s in a way the most sensible pianist,” Ax said. “It’s very direct, very self-assured, not arrogant, logical, beautiful, and it’s done just right. You come out and say, ‘This is the way things should be.’ Of course, then you hear Richter, and you say, ‘No, That’s the way it should be.” And then you hear Horowitz’s voice.

Ax studied at Juilliard with Michislav MonsHe contested several competitions before winning the Rubinstein. Even then, his virtues were not those of the victors. Despite all his “dream technique” as a critic described In 1975, he immediately seemed like a deeper musician than most. “His interpretations are warm, forceful and direct.” Tim Page books in The Times in 1985, describing him as “a very satisfying pianist” – traits that you can hear in his recording of the song. Chopin “Poems” From the same year or later Hayden And Brahms.

If consistency was the defining characteristic of the Ax, it was not entirely reducible to typing. He dabbled with ancient instruments for a while, joining Charles Mackerras and his Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to record tracks. Chopin concerto With brilliance and vitality. His dedication to new music, which has seen him perform compositions for composers including John Adams And Messi Mazzoliwas remarkable for a pianist of his stature.

“I don’t think he sees it as a duty,” Salonen said of Ax’s commitment to contemporary works. “I think he thinks it’s normal. He thinks it’s something musicians do.

But chamber music has been with Ax from the very beginning. He studied with legendary teacher Felix Gallimer as a teenager, then went on to form, among other ensembles, a duo with Ma, a piano trio with Ma and Isaac Stern, a piano quartet with the addition of Jaime Laredo, and most recently, another trio with Ma and Leonidas Kavakoswho has his way with him arrangements Beethoven’s symphonies.

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Ma said that Ax’s core approach to chamber music reflects his “faithfulness to where he’s at, to the aspirations of order, to the idea of ​​a republic, which says you can’t be hierarchical”. Ma said their relationship was built on jokes told at the Juilliard Cafeteria, where they met when Ma was 15 and Ax 21, but also on the principle of equality in shared music; This, at a time when pianists were still described as accompanists to the stars, or spoken of in a royal sense.

And it’s room music, or more accurately playing with friends, that keeps Ax from retiring. He thought of it more than he had before; He missed doing concerts during the pandemic, but he also felt free from the deep anxiety that always accompanied them.

“I get really nervous when I’m playing, and I really hope I can get over it,” said Ax, stressing that the feeling could be worse now than before. “It’s not even a musical concern, it’s more about getting things right, you know — the wrong notes and things like that.”

Ax is unpretentious even in relation to these breeds. Compare what pressure Ax has always felt with that of Martha Argerich, whose stage fright and perfectionism have largely driven her to give up solo concerts. But he suspects the ax has not arrived yet.

“Something in me tells me he won’t stop, because the performance also gives him something to anchor in his life,” said Ma. “It’s hardening. I wouldn’t say he needs that, but there’s a good reciprocity.”

Ask what makes Ax so special as a pianist, and he will say that this is how he gives music the feeling that everything has been carefully thought out. And he’ll notice how revealing that X is in love with Brahms, whose business is all about self-control, and reaching for things that stay out of reach. He will marvel, with more than a hint of exasperation, that Ax still exercises four hours a day, and is still subject to suspicion; However, he will agree that this suspicion serves a purpose in Ax’s life.

“He’s testing it—him allows himself “Try it – because he doesn’t want to say, ‘I know everything,'” said Ma.

But Ma will say all this only when asked to explain. Other than that, when he answers the question of what defines Ax as a pianist, he answers with only one word.