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A Weekend in the Country

Pianist Emanuel Ax is the rare music director of the Ojai Festival who's not a conductor or composer. And that's exactly what Ojai was looking for.

June 01, 1997|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — About a year ago, Emanuel Ax got an invitation he never expected. His friend Ara Guzelimian, artistic director of the Ojai Festival, wanted Ax to take on the role of music director for Ojai 1997.

The pianist was nonplused.

"Ara said they'd had John Adams, [Pierre] Boulez, people like Stravinsky, and how would I like to do the music directorship," Ax remembers. "I said I thought he was slumming; he couldn't find anybody better."

Hardly. At 47, Ax is among the best known and most highly regarded musicians of his generation. Ax, winner of the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition when he was 25, tours the world earning reviews that note his "subtle, graceful pianism" and "impeccably shaped" playing.

He has been playing duets with cellist Yo-Yo Ma for 21 years, recorded more than 20 albums and been accompanied by most of the world's great orchestras. He has played for the soundtracks of the films "Immortal Beloved" (as Beethoven) and "Impromptu" (as Chopin). But he had never programmed a festival, nor is he, as is usual with the Ojai post, a composer or conductor.

That, Guzelimian says, is the point.

"I've always thought of Manny as one of the most intellectually curious musicians I know," explains Guzelimian, who met Ax 15 years ago. "We wanted to make a very different statement in the festival's 51st year, after Boulez as music director and the 50th anniversary [celebration]. With Boulez being such a giant, it's very hard to top or match unless you do a shift of direction. So having a very imaginative musician who wasn't a composer or conductor seemed like a very good way to go."

Ax wasn't quite convinced. Given his predecessors, he needed some time to think about it. And he had to make certain there was no conflict with his son Joseph's high school graduation, also in June.

"He did need some coaxing," Guzelimian says. But a week or so later, Ax signed on, as music director and headliner.

"It gives him an outlet for all his favorite things," his longtime manager, Jenny Vogel, points out. "Putting together programs, playing chamber and orchestral music, having fun with colleagues who are also friends. I believe he also heard that there were some good wine cellars in Ojai."

His festival programming debut, says Ax, is all about mix: "I was interested in doing something that would make sense for [each concert] and not be just a collection of pieces."

The colleagues Ax invited include his wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki; friends Richard Stoltzman on clarinet and Cho-Liang Lin on violin; and a relatively new acquaintance, 21-year-old British conductor Daniel Harding, who, along with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will join Ax in what he calls "some really wonderful masterpieces of the past and the present and a couple of real curiosities."


Music critics have sometimes called Ax "self-effacing" onstage, and it's a trait he also demonstrates sitting in the living room of his spacious apartment on New York's Upper West Side. With his curly hair, full face and animated way of speaking, he is genial, thoughtful, a little professorial.

He likes to explain things--to himself, to a visiting reporter or to a packed auditorium.

"When I do recitals and talk to the audience," Ax says, "which I'm doing more and more, I'm the one that's getting the benefit from it. I hope they are as well, but it feels good for me. I feel better--more relaxed and more connected--to be able to make contact with the people in the seats."

Guzelimian calls him a "really interesting musical thinker," and Ax has obviously done some thinking about the act of performance. Ideally, he says, his approach is the same whether he is playing alone, in a small ensemble or duet or with an orchestra.

"Of course," Ax explains, "sometimes you have to play less for the cello to be heard or more to override an orchestra. Sometimes your right hand has to be more than your left, but the idea is that you're always playing ensemble because pianists deal with polyphony. That's what our job is: to play more than one voice at a time. We're like a string quartet--all in one person."

The personal side is more complicated. Pianists, he points out, perhaps best understand the meaning of solo performance:

"Most of the time, other [performers] have company onstage, whether they play a concerto or recital or quartet. But when pianists walk out to play at a piano recital, we know we're alone.

"You want to make a very intimate connection with people, and you want the music to make a very intimate connection," he says. "That requires really opening yourself up. And, of course, the risk of negative response is something none of us likes."

Yet Ax does it about 100 times a year, a number he considers high. It is also a number that keeps him away from his family. Besides 18-year-old Joseph, he and Nozaki, his wife of 23 years, have a daughter, Sarah, 13.

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