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Whether Emanuel Ax is making music with 80 other musicians or is going solo, he tries to treat it all like chamber music.

Ax is scheduled to perform Brahms’ monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts April 18-20 and 23, and he will return to Symphony Center in March 2020 to perform an evening of Beethoven trios with his frequent collaborators violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“Even when I’m playing alone, I’m already doing chamber music,” Ax said. “I have a right hand and a left hand, and they’re different voices.” And in orchestral playing, the Brahms concerto has the famous cello solo in the third movement, “but I’m also playing with the second violins, with the bassoon, with the conductor,” Ax said. “With any luck, it’s not that different. Ideally, it’s all chamber music.”

But chamber music, as conventionally defined, has always been an important for him. Collaborating with Ma for decades has been “the great privilege of my life,” he said. “It’s a large part of the luck I’ve had in my career.” And with Kavakos in the mix, “it’s inspiring, mesmerizing to hear those two. I float on that feeling. I never get nervous when I’m playing with them.”

To rehearse, the three meet a few days before the concert, or series of concerts, and “they listen so intently, and they’re so aware of what’s going on, that we can connect very quickly,” Ax said. “It can be different on different days, but there’s always a logic and a beauty to it.”

Those different approaches can carry over into the performance, without any pre-arrangement. Having practiced a piece any number of different but valid ways, Ax said that tempos, dynamics, and other details may come out differently at each performance.

The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein noticed that quality at the trio’s last appearance at Symphony Center in 2018. “One could only marvel at how intuitive and spontaneous these performances were, with each player kindling immediate responses from his colleagues,” he wrote. “Rarely will you find A-list classical musicians of [this] caliber … merging egos and artistic personalities as triumphantly as this million-dollar trio did.”

Next season’s performances of the Beethoven trios have been scheduled in part to mark the great German composer’s 250th birthday. “Really? I hadn’t heard,” Ax said, deadpan.

But keeping fresh ears for familiar masterworks can be an issue for some. “For performers, every time you play it, it’s fresh. I never get tired of Beethoven 5,” Ax said, referring to the Emperor Concerto. “But for audiences, I don’t know what the right approach is. Cities the size of Chicago, New York, Berlin, you should hear the Beethoven symphonies every year. It’s like going to church. Or maybe you should do no Beethoven for the anniversary. Have a time when you don’t hear it and see how much you miss it.”

The Brahms concerto is a landmark of similar dimensions, and Ax has several performances scheduled this season. “I need to keep practicing it,” he said. “It’s very hard, and it’s not getting any easier as I get older. I’ve been playing it for 40 years now, and I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life played it correctly. … But the reason we all keep hacking away is that it’s such a great piece, such a thrill to play.”

Over the decades, Ax says that he’s been lucky to avoid injury or fatigue. “I’m lazy,” he said with a laugh, “and I try to find the most economical way to play, physically.” Some pianists, of course, make dramatic movement part of their stage persona, and Ax can think of examples on all sides. “Vladimir Horowitz sat still at the piano, and he moved less than anyone I’ve ever seen. Rubinstein was the same. But then Rudolf Serkin was a dervish, he moved so much. And they all compelled the listener and the viewer in their own way.”

Despite being immersed in the music business, Ax still enjoys being in the audience for orchestra or chamber performances. “Pianists are the best audience of all, because we know how hard it is and know everything that could happen,” he said. “We’re very good colleagues, for the most part. If I see pianists in the audience, I’m happy, and they feel the same way.”

David Lewellen is a Milwaukee-based arts journalist.

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