Emanuel Ax: 100 Concerts and Counting!
By Lucy Kraus
Lucy Kraus caught up with pianist Emanuel Ax on the eve of his 100th New York Philharmonic performance and shares what she learned of his rich history with this Orchestra.
On September 29, 1977, the 28- year-old Emanuel Ax took the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in his New York Philharmonic debut, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, led by Andrew Davis. Three decades later — on April 28, 2011 — the fleet-fingered pianist, adored by audiences, critics, and musicians alike, is performing his 100th concert with the Orchestra.
“It seems like such an incredibly big number,” said the soft-spoken, Polish-born Grammy Award–winner, on the phone from Texas, where he was on a recital tour. “It makes me feel very, very proud to be associated with this Orchestra for that many concerts — and it makes me feel a bit old!”
Mr. Ax, who became a New Yorker at the age of 12, well remembers that day in 1977 when he joined his hometown orchestra for the first time. “The idea of playing with the Philharmonic was amazing,” he recalls. “I and my fiancée [now, his wife], Yoko Nozaki, had heard the Orchestra forever. It was a big thrill. I remember being just as nervous as I am today, but the musicians were incredibly supportive; they made me feel at home among friends. I’ve felt like a friend of the Orchestra ever since.”
For his 100th performance, on April 28 (and also on April 29 and 30), Mr. Ax will play Debussy’s Estampes for solo piano and Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste — a work he has never performed before. “The Debussy and Messiaen go well together,” the pianist explains. “Sometimes it’s nice for the audience to have a little bit of a mixture — a change of sound and color.”
“I’m excited that Manny is going to be playing something entirely different,” says Music Director Alan Gilbert, who is conducting the Messiaen as well as Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on these concerts. “He’s an incredibly versatile musician and plays an enormous range of repertoire. Couleurs is one of Messiaen’s great works for piano and small ensemble. From the French music I’ve heard Manny play, I’m sure he will bring something very important and special to this.”
Over the years Mr. Ax’s repertoire with the Philharmonic has included works by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Szymanowski, interspersed with a smattering of pieces by contemporary composers such as Hans Werner Henze, Michael Tippett, William Bolcom, Christopher Rouse, and Bright Sheng (the latter two commissioned for him by the Philharmonic). He has no “favorite concert,” but recalls that one of the most unusual was to be asked, out of the blue, to play Henze’s Tristan, Preludes for Piano, Tape, and Orchestra, in 1984, for the Horizons Festival, conducted by the composer. “It was a real drill to do it, but it actually opened up the possibility of me doing some newer music, which I hadn’t done before,” said Mr. Ax, who has since been active in commissioning new works.
Over the decades the New York Philharmonic has evolved, and Emanuel Ax has witnessed many of its changes firsthand. “I think the overriding impression is the relative age of the people on stage,” he notes. “When I first started, I was one of the youngest people. When I went on tour with the Orchestra [Europe in 2007, Asia in 2009], I saw people like Principal Oboe Liang Wang, who is a little younger than my son; this is a major change. I feel like a grandpa!”
Mr. Wang — who, during the Orchestra’s visit to vietnam, prescribed, with great success, a traditional Chinese remedy of drinking vinegar to dislodge a fi sh bone wedged in the throat of Mr. Ax’s wife — does not, however, think of Mr. Ax as “grandpa.” “Manny is such a personable guy, and such a complete musician,” says the oboist. “He has a real respect for the musicians here, and it shows in the way he plays. He’s interacting with the musicians all the time, and he’s very generous musically. It’s like spontaneous chamber-music-making. I’m a big fan.”
Such newer colleagues join Mr. Ax’s older friends in the Orchestra, veterans whose presence makes performances infi nitely more comfortable for the perennially anxiety-ridden pianist. Among them are schoolmates Marc Ginsberg, Principal, Second violin Group, and Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, whom he has known for 40 years.
“My friendship with Manny goes back a long way, indeed,” says Mr. Dicterow. “We met at Juilliard, and often collaborated on sonatas and in chamber music. It was such a thrill to make music with him. He was then, and still is, extremely fun to be around. He is a consummate musician and a brilliant human being. And he happens to be a fantastic joke teller!”
Mr. Ax acknowledges that performing with a conductor he enjoys also helps. “Alan Gilbert is one of the great appointments,” he says. “I’ve known him a long time — fi rst at Curtis, and when he subbed [as a violinist] with The Philadelphia Orchestra – even without having seen him conduct. I remember thinking: ‘He’s such a wonderful fellow, so intelligent, so well put together with brains. I hope he’s a wonderful conductor.’ And he turned out to be an amazing conductor.”
The pianist says he is eager to perform John Adams’s Century Rolls with Mr. Gilbert and the Orchestra some day. In the meantime, he continues to be challenged by every concert, no matter where and when it might be. “I’m still going to be nervous,” he admits, “but for me, the biggest thing that helps is feeling that I’m among friends and that I’m playing for friends. You get that from the New York Philharmonic.”
Lucy Kraus is the Senior Publications Editor at the New
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