About two years ago, the pianist Emanuel Ax started thinking about how to celebrate the bicentennials of the two great Romantic Era composers, Chopin and Schumann (both born in 1810). Given that he both knew and performed with other world-class musicians and orchestras, Ax came up with the idea of a multi-part concert program involving a great many of those colleagues.
His longtime collaborator, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, came onboard, and so did soprano Dawn Upshaw. Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, London's Barbican, New York's Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic not only agreed to host the concerts but also to co-commission new music from a variety of composers. "It was," says Ax, "a dream come true."
The pianist and his dream return to Los Angeles on Tuesday for the second of three programs highlighting Chopin, Schumann and new music. Building on his well-received session at Walt Disney Concert Hall in January with Yo-Yo Ma, Ax launches his 10-day Los Angeles Philharmonic residency, beginning with Upshaw, then adding chamber music and orchestral performances later this week.
"A song is a very personal journey, and you kind of feel your way with a new partner in performance," says Upshaw, whose performances in this concert program have been her first with Ax. "He brings such a great deal of experience and knowledge, but he never forces anything. He is always responding to wherever our music making takes us."
That's what Ax, 60, has been doing for decades. The Polish-born musician began playing piano at 6, was trained at New York's Juilliard School, and won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition when he was 25. He has since recorded more than two dozen albums, won several Grammy Awards, and performed to critical acclaim with major musicians and orchestras from New York to Singapore.
"Manny's engagement with the composer is more comprehensive than many other pianists," observes Ara Guzelimian, dean of the Juilliard School. "His musical and intellectual curiosity lead him to chamber music and song as well as solo work."
Chatting about his music by telephone last week, the reflective pianist agrees that he's equally comfortable onstage with a second musician, a full orchestra or on his own. "I never really distinguished between solo pianist and chamber music pianist," says Ax. "You have other voices to deal with, but musically, it's not that different."
Ax will perform in all these contexts during his concerts here. "He is a poet of the piano," says Deborah Borda, president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. Ax's "On Location" residency this year is his second with the Philharmonic, she adds, saying, "He is almost like a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic family in that there are so many different ways he manifests in our life. He appears every season, has toured with us and is close to both Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel."
No musical relationship is so close, of course, as his friendship and music-making with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ax and his then-future wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki, attended the cellist's debut concert in New York nearly 40 years ago and, says Ax, "I remember saying I hope to get to work with him. We met in the Juilliard cafeteria a few months later, really hit if off and have been friends and colleagues ever since. It is one of the great parts of my life and has always been an incredible joy."
Today among the most highly-sought-after pianists globally, the peripatetic musician performs 80 to 85 concerts a year, some at home in New York, but most everywhere else. Although he says he plans to cut his performance and travel schedule back a little the next few years, he still practices every day for several hours.
Consider, for instance, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, which he performs here later this week with the L.A. Philharmonic. "Every time I practice, I learn new things about the music," says Ax. "I've been working on that concerto since I was 18, which is 42 years, and I'm still trying to find ways of communicating the beauty of the piece better."
On the other hand, sometimes the music truly is new to him. John Adams and Christopher Rouse have written pieces for him in the past, and his current Chopin-Schumann programs have in turn also commissioned new music. For instance, he and Ma debuted Peter Lieberson's "Remembering Schumann," and the pianist's program with Upshaw this week includes a new piece by Stephen Prutsman. Ax will be back here in April with not just more Chopin but also "Three Mazurkas," a commission from Thomas Adés.
Whether by Prutsman, Lieberson or Adés, Chopin, Schumann or any other composer, the music assumes center stage for Ax. "I would like people to listen with me to the music and to basically feel they had a wonderful experience with the composer. What all of us are looking for is a way to get the people in the hall to be excited by the music and the performance."