Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Keyboard Idol - Emanuel Ax

In the Fall of 1980, I was 18 years old and a Freshman at the University of Montana. I was just beginning my studies as a piano major, when I saw a poster that the Music Department was sponsoring a concert of all Beethoven Piano Sonatas, performed by Emanuel Ax. As music majors, we were required to attend concerts. I was a diligent student and I thought this concert was as good as any, to begin to fulfill my recital attendance requirement.

I grew up in Havre, Montana --- God's country truly, but the small, isolated town had virtually no access to any classical music. Live music shows in any genre were infrequent at best, so my chances to hear any kind of music were extremely limited. I was a Philistine as far as my musical tastes were concerned. I did have the good judgement to love most of the composers I was exposed to through my piano lessons. I adored and revered Bach. As a teenager, I couldn't get enough of Chopin and Brahms. I also loved any music that was contemporary, new, avant garde...the strange harmonies and driving rhythms of Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky...really spoke to me. Regardless, I certainly had not ever heard a pianist play a program of Beethoven Sonatas, nor heard any recordings. The Beethoven I had played as a child - bored me. "Fur Elise", ugh - I couldn't stand practicing that piece. I had played a few Bagatelles very poorly I should add, as well as a few of the early Sonatinas, but I thought at my young age, Beethoven, WHO CARES!

Then came the day that I chanced upon Emanuel Ax giving a concert of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. That event changed my life. I had never heard such music from the piano. And by the end of the first sonata, I was determined to play as many Beethoven works as possible. I began to listen to the string quartets (so quaintly as I remember now - in the listening library with the largest headphones imaginable over my ears, but transported to old Europe none the less, through the amazing playing of the Budapest String Quartet...). Next, I listened to all of Beethoven's chamber music as long as it included a part for the piano!

Now I love Beethoven's music and consider it one of the great privileges of my life that I can play a Beethoven Sonata any time I desire. I owe this romance to Emanuel Ax's transporting, passoniate playing of Beethoven Sonatas in the 1980s.

Thank you Manny!

In this clip, Mr. Ax talks about playing with the New York Philharmonic. My favorite quote is "pianists are actors". I completely agree.

A lovely interview from the Barbican Centre in London


Ax playing with Yo Yo Ma.

One of my favorite stories about Ax in this New Yorker profile of the Marlboro Music Festival (pages 60 and 61) in Vermont.


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