Emanuel Ax might not possess the flash or star power of some his colleagues, but few if any American pianists are more respected or more beloved. At age 66, Ax is a model of versatility, performing the classics with aplomb but also eagerly taking on new works as well, including the premieres in recent years of John Adams’ Century Rolls, Christopher Rouse’s Seeing and Bright Sheng’s Red Silk Dance.
A familiar visitor to the city for decades, Ax will return March 17-19 to Orchestra Hall for a set of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He will join guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as soloist in Beethoven’s well-known Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58. In advance of that appearance, Sounds & Stories asked the pianist to share some of his thoughts on overlooked piano works and the state of today’s classical-music world as well as some memories:
Please name a piano work that you believe is underappreciated?
Gosh, it’s tough. This is a little arcane, but probably Mozart’s [Piano] Sonata in B-flat, K. 570. It’s an incredibly complex and rewarding piece. It’s actually very powerful in concert, but it’s never played. And I think the Mozart sonatas in general have, in a way, gotten a bad rap because the piano concertos are so immediately appealing and so great and so brilliant that somehow the solo sonatas have taken a backseat to them and just don’t appear on concert programs. That particular piece – the only person I’ve ever heard play it is [Alfred] Brendel and I just love it. But there are probably hundreds of pieces that one could answer that with.
How about one whose popularity has always puzzled you?
I would say most piano pieces that I hear that are very popular are popular for a good reason, whether it’s because they’re very athletic or they’re very deep or they’re very moving in hundreds of different ways. I think the piano repertoire is full of nothing but glories.
Is there a piano work you’re still longing to perform?
Well, there’s one that I played a long time ago only a few times, and I’m going to try and have another go at in a year and a half, and that’s the Beethoven Diabelli Variations. It’s my favorite Beethoven piece. It’s so intimidating and so difficult, and it’s also difficult for audiences. It’s a lot of concentration. It’s 50 minutes long. It takes a special atmosphere to make it work, but I love it so deeply and I’m going to have another crack at it.
Is there a pianist from the past you believe has been unfairly forgotten?
Oh, probably hundreds. I think the piano world has always been populated with an incredibly large number of great pianists. I really mean that sincerely. When you look at the time of [Vladimir] Horowitz and [Arthur] Rubinstein, there must have been 25 or 30 pianists of that era that are undeservedly not as well known as Horowitz and Rubinstein. [Sviatoslav] Richter, [Emil] Gilels and [Vladimir] Ashkenazy dominated the Russian scene as far as Americans were concerned. But there were people like Yakov Zak and Yakov Flier. These are just two names that I know and personally heard who were phenomenal pianists, but we just didn’t know them, and that’s the just the Russian area. In the time of Rubinstein, in our country, we hardly hear of Wilhelm Kempff, Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Backhaus, and these were absolute giants. And so, that’s a question we could sit and talk about for hours. I’m quite a pianophile. I’m a piano buff. I like a lot of pianists, and I know about a lot of them.
How about a composer who falls in that category?
In a funny way, I think maybe [Gabriel] Fauré. I think his piano music is quite wonderful, and it’s been neglected to a large degree because it’s just so difficult and maybe not as immediately rewarding to perform as other difficult things. If you work, for example, on the [Franz] Liszt Rhapsodies, you get a lot of applause for playing them. That’s not necessarily true of the Fauré Nocturnes, for example, but they’re fabulous music, and people like Marc-André Hamelin have been doing a lot to make them more known to audiences. [Fauré’s] chamber music, the two piano quartets, the violin sonata, those are better known. And, of course, the Requiem is well-known and fabulous, but the piano music is equally wonderful and not played by that many people.
What is the most surprising aspect of being a touring classical soloist?
People may think that when I go to a lot of places that I visit all over the world that I get to know them very, very well, and unfortunately, that’s not true. I spend a lot of my time in the practice room and otherwise just taking naps before concerts. So, for example, I’ve been to Amsterdam any number of times. I so love playing here. It’s a great hall. Great orchestras in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. I have yet to visit, and this is shameful, the Van Gogh Museum. It’s criminal, actually. But once I finish my practicing, I’m so lazy. So a lot of the time I’m just a novice to these places. What I really need to do is stop playing the piano and become a tourist.
That’s not happening.
Probably not, but I would see a lot more. On the other hand, I do love what I’m doing. So maybe what people might be surprised by is that I feel incredibly lucky to have this job. It’s a dream job for me, even though I get very nervous and stuff.
Would you name one of the most memorable keyboard performances that you have attended?
As a kid, the most remarkable single event was the big return of Horowitz to Carnegie Hall in 1965. I was 15 then. For most of us who were at Juilliard Prep or even at Juilliard College, it was as though somebody had come back from the dead, because he literally had not played for 12 years in public. So the last time he played, I was three years old. Rubinstein played every year. So yes, it was a fabulous event, but he came last year, he’s coming this year and he’s coming next year. With Horowitz, it was out of the blue. He suddenly decided to come and play at Carnegie Hall. And two days before the tickets went on sale — it was a Friday afternoon — a line started forming outside Carnegie to buy tickets Monday morning. We had a list. I was like No. 77 on that line. You could go away for a couple of hours, but basically you spent the weekend outside Carnegie Hall in May 1965, awaiting those tickets to go on sale. That was probably a seminal event in my life.
What was the performance like? Was it up to your expectations?
It was absolutely miraculous. Completely miraculous. I’ve never heard anything like it. And you know the wonderful thing? I’ve listened to the recording of that performance. It’s a famous record, and every time I hear that record I feel it was just as great as when I was 15. It actually was that fabulous. That’s the level he played at.
Is there a performance that you have given in a small, out-of-the-way venue that stands out in your memory?
Again, quite a lot of places. I think a lot of the time you come to a smaller community and a smaller hall, and you find the most remarkable audiences who are unbelievably silent and attentive and enthusiastic, and you feel like you’re really part of the group and enjoying the music right along with them. And sometimes you even play well, where everything feels good, the piano is nice and you’re not that nervous, and somehow it all works out. Every year, I have one or two of those. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Yo-Yo [Ma] and I have had a couple of those also. We were very young — this must be over 30 years ago — and we played all [five of] the Beethoven [cello] sonatas in the chamber music hall in Zurich. I think it is about 350-400 seats, and that was one of the most wonderful experiences we ever had, I think. Really, really special. It was an amazing group of people. You just felt that everybody loved Beethoven, and we were just two more people who loved Beethoven
Would you describe your experiences with the worst piano you’ve encountered during your touring?
Things have gotten a lot better generally speaking, but I remember that I once literally had to change a program. It was only my second or third year of actually having some concerts, and it was a very difficult program. It included Gaspard de la nuit of Ravel and the Liszt Sonata — both those pieces. Don’t ask me why I did that. Maybe I was practicing those two at the time. I practiced on the piano on the day before, and I said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I just cannot play that program on this piano.” It was so heavy, so impossible to press the keys down. I said, “There is no way I can get through the Ravel and probably not through the Liszt.” So I think I wound up playing some fairly quiet Chopin and maybe the Waldstein Sonata. It was all very difficult, but there was no way I could have played Gaspard on that piano.
What is the biggest difference between the young pianists of today and the student pianists you heard coming up?
I would say the general level today is just so much higher. It’s phenomenal. The level of piano playing today — I’ve never heard anything like it. There were always the peaks. You don’t play better than certain people. You can’t play better than Murray Perahia. But I mean the general ability of playing the piano accurately, fast, musically and beautifully — it’s incredible what goes on now. In my time, there were only a few people who could play the Rachmaninov Third Concerto the way it should be played. When I was at Juilliard, there were three or four people who did it — Fima [Yefim] Bronfman, Garrick Ohlsson and Horacio Gutiérrez. Now, it seems that every single person at the Juilliard School and Curtis [Institute of Music] can negotiate that piece and very well. So I think that is an incredible change.
What most excites you about today’s classical world?
What’s really exciting to me is that I see a number of people — a couple of people from my generation and a number in the younger generation — who are really looking away from the standard conservatory model of what a pianist should be. When we were trained, our teachers generally speaking were not that interested in anything but the ability to play the piano well. They weren’t that interested in what you thought about doing chamber music, how you built programs, how you interact with other people or how you interact with audiences. They were really concerned and we were all concerned with playing the piano as best you can and that was going to lead to success.
What you see now — the biggest example is the Chicago Symphony’s artistic adviser, my friend Yo-Yo. He’s the most incredible cellist, but he’s also looking at so many aspects of the life of a musician: how musicians should be concerned with the rest of the community that they live in and how they should be concerned with the world outside? How can we benefit people aside from just playing well? What kind of music includes classical music? What is classical music?
We have performers doing that. We also have composers who are opening their ears and eyes to so many influences. You have an artist like John Adams. I was privileged to play a piece of his called Century Rolls. Here’s a guy who knows all of music. He knows Schoenberg really well. He understands Boulez, but he also understands rock music. He understands Philip Glass. He’s involving the whole world of music in what he is writing, and I think that is so fabulous.
And I think younger people today are following that so much more. They’re interested in how to act with audiences. It’s not enough to just walk out, go to the piano, play the instrument, take a bow and go away. They’re interested in: How does the audience feel about what I’m doing? How can I make the audience understand what I’m doing better? How can I get little kids to play the piano? Someone like Lang Lang is fascinated with that, and he is doing wonderful work in that respect. I think a lot of younger people are more involved with that, and I think that is so exciting in our world today.
What most disappoints you about today’s classical world?
I’m generally a glass half-full kind of guy. I like to look at the positive. Gosh, I think what might be disappointing is that my generation is getting old. [He laughs.] When you’re a pianist, you keep trying to get better all your life. There’s so much to work on. And, sadly, I’m 66 now, and I’m starting to think that I’ve never gotten quite to where I want to get to. But it may just be a little too late, and I just may never get there. And I suppose that’s true for everyone. Probably someone like Horowitz felt that way, too, even though I can’t imagine it. But maybe to him, he felt that way. To me, he got as far you need to get go. Maybe, everyone on their level feels that way a little bit. And that’s also the nice thing about playing the piano. You don’t have to worry about what to do with your retirement, because you never retire. You just keeping trying to work on stuff and get better at it.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.