Flashy pianists have come and gone during the stellar half-century career of Emanuel Ax — many of them young publicity-seekers, fashionistas, and social-media fanatics. Some seek to break away from the pack with attention-grabbing behavior, such as pianist Yuja Wang and her revealing concert attire, or Lang Lang with his keyboard histrionics.
But not Manny, as his friends call him. He’s an old-fashioned performer who is content to play Chopin or Mozart without mannerisms or gimmicks, focusing more on pianism than personality. Approaching his 70th year, he remains one of the music world’s most admired concert artists, universally lauded by critics. The New York Times has called his performances “never less than spellbinding.” And The Seattle Times praised the pianist’s “sheer humanity” and “magisterial technique.”
Ax will appear in a solo recital on Sunday, March 31, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, making his first visit to New Mexico since an engagement at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival 15 years ago. Today Ax calls it a “thriving summer festival.”
“That was my first summer in Santa Fe,” said festival executive director Steven Ovitsky. “Manny was so generous with his time, appearing at a gala and playing music for two pianos by Mozart and Bartók with his wife, Yoko Nozaki.”
In a brief chat from New York, where he’d just returned from a European tour, the pianist addressed his Lensic program like a casual cook throwing something together for his guests. “I guess these are all pieces that I simply want to play. There’s really no rhyme or reason,” he said. The concert’s first half is a curious buffet: Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies and Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces sandwiched around a contemporary work by a composer many will fail to recognize: Piano Figures, a wispy 2004 collection of 10 miniatures by English composer George Benjamin. “I know George, and I’ve always enjoyed his music,” Ax said, noting that a meeting between the two had touched on Piano Figures but never got down to specifics. “I’ve found that living composers are usually open to many ways of playing their music. We didn’t go through any scores, but I know he’ll be fine with my reading.”
Such respect has followed Ax almost from the start. A native of present-day Lviv, Ukraine, as a young boy, he moved with his family to Winnipeg, Canada. His early keyboard skills led him to studies at Juilliard (he also attended Columbia University, where he majored in French). What had been a fledgling performing career gained serious attention when Ax captured top honors at the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv in 1974. Five years later, he won the coveted Avery Fisher Prize.
Honors have also come with his prodigious recording career. Among the nearly six dozen releases of solo, chamber, and orchestral works for RCA and Columbia/Sony are seven Grammy winners, five of them in partnership with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Much of that enormous catalog is dominated by 19th-century masters — particularly Chopin, whose music is featured prominently in the second half of the Lensic program.
Another sign of Ax’s prominence in the music world is the growing list of works written for him. The pianist mentioned Century Rolls, the concerto he commissioned from American composer John Adams in 1997. “We did talk [about the piece], of course, but John didn’t express any problem with my interpretation. Like so many composers, his attitude is, once it’s on paper, it’s done.”
In addition to Adams’ concerto, he’s commissioned works by Christopher Rouse (Seeing), and Bright Sheng (Red Silk Dance). In early 2017, he gave the premiere of a concerto by German composer HK Gruber, commissioned for Ax by the New York Philharmonic. “I play the field,” he said of his taste in new music, admitting that the act of requesting a new piece can present some dangers. “You do take pot luck sometimes. It could turn out to be something unpleasant.” He declined to name names.
It seems odd that all those collaborations failed to infect Ax with an itch to create his own music. “I don’t compose at all. I really have no ability or pull in that direction,” he confessed. “Lots of brilliant pianists are writing now. People like Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough. And [Daniil] Trifonov is a serious composer.”
When he’s not on the road, Ax is home with his wife, pianist Nozaki, and their two children. Still connected to his alma mater, he works with one or two advanced Juilliard students chosen by school administrators. These are pianists who are becoming polished professionals, such as Orion Weiss, who has built a busy career of his own.
Life as a touring musician has taken Ax to all corners of the globe, and like any pianist, he faces the uncertainty of what sort of instrument might be waiting for him at his next gig. Unlike traveling violinists, cellists, and flutists who carry their own gear, concert pianists must rely on presenters to secure a decent instrument. Many a keyboard veteran has horror stories to share. Noted pianist Olga Kern once told of a recital in which she faced an instrument that had sat out in a Mexican rainstorm.
Ax has few such tales. “Subpar pianos might have been a problem when I was starting out. I recall one time when what they provided didn’t meet the demands of my program, so I had to change some of the selections. But it’s much better now. The general level of instruments is excellent. We’re in a good time.”
Ax is an easygoing fellow in conversation, and he brings that same accessibility to the stage. Expecting his Santa Fe listeners to be unfamiliar with Benjamin’s Piano Figures, he promised a short spoken introduction. “Sure, I’ll say a few words before the piece. I like to talk to audiences.” ◀
▼ Performance Santa Fe presents Emanuel Ax
▼ 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 31
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $14.50-$110, 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.org
▼ Ax also appears at an post-concert artist reception at the Inn of the Anasazi’s private library. Tickets are $100. Call Performance Santa Fe, 505-984-8759.