December 12, 2018

Ax at ease playing piano concerto by Schoenberg

Emanuel Ax, one of the most beloved pianists of his generation, is as amiable and ebullient over the phone as he is onstage. Mention Glenn Gould’s live recording of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Ax utters a reverent “Wonderful!” He is so upbeat that he makes the rigorously conceived concerto sound like a treat no one should miss.

Ax will perform Schoenberg’s challenging work twice with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 (K. 449) at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 26 and 28 (a concert on Jan. 27 omits the Schoenberg). The program for all three dates, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting, also includes Schoenberg’s “Accompaniment to a Film Scene” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 (K. 297), “Paris.”

On Jan. 31, Ax returns to Disney Hall for an all-Mozart chamber music concert with members of the orchestra. 

Ax is among a select group of pianists, including Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida, who have championed Schoenberg’s 1942 concerto, a 12-tone piece that takes some getting used to. He recorded the concerto for Sony Classical with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in 1993. 

“I like the Schoenberg concerto because I’ve practiced it a lot,” Ax said by phone from his home in New York. “When you work on something, you get used to the sounds. It was baffling at the beginning; it’s not baffling now. I don’t think audiences should worry too much about tone rows or anything like that.  It’s quite a dramatic and exciting piece.”

The Disney Hall program comfortably cushions the ingenious and challenging Schoenberg score between two much-loved tonal works by Mozart. “The Mozart’s there because the Schoenberg concerto is fairly short,” Ax explained. “It’s only about 21 minutes. And it’s nice to do another piece with it. Simple as that.”

A regular visitor to Los Angeles since 1975, Ax said he may have been the first pianist to give a solo recital in Disney Hall when it opened in 2003. “I think my first concerto performance in Disney was with David Robertson and the Phil — the second official week of the hall,” he said. 

Ax, who is 67, was born in Lvov, Poland. His family moved to Warsaw when he was 7 years old. Although his Polish-Jewish parents, both concentration camp survivors, were not musicians, the family did have an upright piano in their home.

“I had music lessons like other kids and liked it,” Ax said. “My parents were fully assimilated Jews, but I identify myself as Jewish and go to Israel regularly. I perform with the Israel Philharmonic and do benefits.” 

At the age of 12, Ax went to New York to study at the Juilliard School under Polish-American pianist Mieczyslaw Munz. 

“Mr. Munz was very rigorous,” Ax said. “He wanted things done correctly, not to use pedal to muddy things. One could say he was concerned with the cosmetics of piano playing, with getting things right. That was not an area of strength for me.”

Ax said Munz never had to tell him to go hear other pianists, listen to other music or play chamber music. “That I did on my own,” Ax said. “Mr. Munz made me learn to practice well. I don’t have an especially brilliant technique, but I try hard to get things right, and that was his influence. I have to practice very seriously because there are so many people who are much more physically gifted than I am.”

Ax, a member of the Juilliard faculty since 1990, said he’s impressed with today’s level of piano playing. “The kids today are so brilliant,” Ax said. “There’s so much talent now.”

The pianist said recordings have made audiences used to perfection but that even the best performers sometimes miss things — and that’s OK. “I don’t think young people today, like Daniil Trifonov or Yuja Wang, are especially looking never to play a wrong note,” Ax said. “They just happen not to. Most audiences don’t actually care. I don’t think wrong notes are a major concern of the world. No, we have other issues.” 

These days, he said, younger generations of musicians have to be more enterprising in how they structure their musical lives. “Having a career used to be very direct: You practiced, went to some competitions and, if you were lucky, you got a prize, engagements and a manager,” Ax said. “Now there’s so much talent that young people have to look at different repertoire and different ways to present it to attract audiences.”

The changing classical music business also has affected Ax, who is making fewer recordings than he used to. “I did maybe a record a year, sometimes two,” he said. “There are so many marvelous recordings of the standard repertoire that, quite honestly, do we really need another recorded set of the Beethoven concertos? There are so many great ones. I know there’s always another way, but you can go to a concert and hear it.” 

That said, Ax’s upcoming releases include a live performance of a Brahms concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and a couple of Beethoven concertos with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

Regarding his stellar reputation as a chamber musician, Ax said he owes a lot to his close friend, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “I met Yo-Yo early in my life,” Ax said. “We’ve been playing together for 45 years and we’ll probably do further recordings. He’s been an incredible inspiration and teacher.”

Returning to his upcoming challenge — Schoenberg’s concerto — Ax said he will be using the score. “Schoenberg wrote music for people to enjoy,” Ax said. “He has his own sounds in his ears, but he certainly is aware of the audience. The lyrical parts are supposed to be beautiful, the exciting parts exciting.” 

Though the composer offered a brief narrative for his continuous four-movement concerto — “Life was so easy (andante); but all of a sudden hate broke loose (molto allegro); the situation became grave (adagio); but life has to go on (giocoso)” — Ax said listeners don’t have to accept his version. 

“That’s the nice thing about music,” Ax said. “You can make up your own story. No two are alike, and that’s what makes music wonderful. So, don’t worry about it. Just listen to the concerto and then go have a drink.”