Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Emanuel Ax
about the Szymanowski Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra

Material from the Classical Music Column for the October 10, 2008 Preview Section, Bay Area News Group

Local lovers of the piano, that most versatile of musical instruments, can enjoy a bit of heaven this month, as the San Francisco Symphony presents four of the world�s greatest living masters of this consummate king of keyboards.

The first of these four pianists is Emanuel Ax, currently in the midst of three performances of Richard Strauss� bombastic, yet ravishingly beautiful, Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1886, and the first-ever San Francisco Symphony performance of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski�s exceedingly difficult Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra.

According to SFS publicists, Ax is one of only two pianists who have undertaken this latter work.

Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian will serve as guest conductor. Other works on the program will be Mozart�s Overture to his opera, The Magic Flute; and Tchaikovsky�s Op. 32 Francesca di Rimini.

Early last week I had an opportunity to speak with the congenially accessible Emanuel Ax via telephone from his Cleveland hotel prior to a performance with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Ax, who is now among the most celebrated of modern pianists, was born in 1949 in Lvov, Ukraine. His parents, Joachim and Helen Ax, were both Nazi concentration camp survivors. Father Joachim began teaching young Emanuel piano at the age of six.

After living for a couple of years in Warsaw, the family immigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, and finally, in 1961, to New York City. The precocious Emanuel was admitted to the Juilliard School where he continued his piano study with Mieczyslaw Munz. But young Ax extended his interests beyond music, and while continuing his Juilliard studies, went on to earn a degree in French from Columbia University. In 1970, he became an American citizen.

In subsequent years he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, the Avery Fisher Prize, and seven Grammy awards. A musicians� musician, Ax�s performing repertoire ranges from Haydn to contemporary times and he often has performed chamber works with his pianist wife Yoko Nozaki, Yo-Yo Ma, Jaime Laredo, Yefim Bronfman, Pablo Ziegler, the late Isaac Stern, and many more.

When I asked what attracted him to the music of Szymanowski, he replied, �It offered me a chance to do something different. Szymanowski (pronounced �She-man-OFF-ski�) definitely has his own distinctive voice.�

Explaining that Szymanowski dedicated his 1932 Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra to Arthur Rubenstein, he noted that it features some piano writing similar to Chopin�s, and even has a Mazurka-like segment.

�Yet,� he said, �it also has some of the astringency of Prokofiev and is very 20th century. Even though it�s technically difficult to play, it is certainly NOT difficult to listen to,� he said.

And with what must have surely been accompanied by a playful smile, he added, �The only really difficult thing about Szymanowski�s music is how to spell his name.�

About classical and concert music in general, he counseled, �I hope audiences will not worry about knowing so much about such music, but will just enjoy listening. After all, music really is meant to be enjoyed!�

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