The acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax returns to Hartford to perform in a fund-raising event Saturday at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Ax and his wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki, both will perform with The Hartford Symphony, conducted by Edward Cumming.
The program is divided into halves: one-half Beethoven, with the first Leonore Overture and Ax as soloist in the fourth piano concerto; and one-half Mozart, with the Symphony No. 23 and the concerto K. 365 for two pianos with soloists Ax and Nozaki.
This is the first event in Cumming's final season as conductor and music director of the Hartford Symphony.
Cumming has a special flair for Beethoven. The HSO faithful recall the Beethoven symphony cycle that was the center of the 2008-2009 season, or the searing performance of the composer's Missa Solemnis in May 2008. Cumming articulates details and brings out the rhythmic vitality in Beethoven. He also brings out the humor — sometimes by coloring outside of the lines — like the time in 2007 at the Hoffman Auditorium in West Hartford when he paused a moment before starting the finale of Beethoven's first symphony. He was still reflecting on the third movement. He put his arms down, half-twisted toward the audience and said: "He called that a minuet…can you believe it!"
Ax and Cumming should make for some magic. Ax has been performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 for more than 30 years.
"It is still pretty exciting, I think," he says.. "There is a kind of improvisational quality. There are all these very difficult and very fast running passages that are really kind of free."
"One of the contemporary reviews that I read about this concerto," says Ax, "talks about the completely unbelievable rapidity of Beethoven's scales and thirds all those things. It remains brilliant."
While most people focus on the meditative qualities in this work Ax hears an intense side that he believes may even rival the "sheer excitement" of Beethoven's last piano concerto; nicknamed the "Emperor."
"I know," says Ax, "that people talk about [the fourth concerto as] an intimate or lyrical or understated piece, and in parts of course that true. But in other parts, it's very explosive. The middle section of the first movement is almost like when Schubert goes nuts. … It is really wild! The cadenza is also very wild."
Mozart's concerto for two pianos K.365 was clearly for himself and his sister. It is a work with a restless quality; ideas turn and twist in surprising ways. "It is always perfect," says Ax, "and always a little bit different from what you expect"
Ax and Nozaki last played this concerto with the Hartford Symphony in October 1990.
"Two pianos in general are quite difficult," he says, "because it is hard to match the sound. You have to check which piano is more brilliant, which one is more muffled, and adapt them to one another. Sometimes it's not good to blend because you really do want two distinct voices. Sometimes the blending is necessary. I think it is quite difficult."
He has at least one advantage working with Nozaki: "We practice a lot," says A, "since we are married."
There is book of fiction called "Body and Soul" written by Frank Conroy that is a coming-of-age story about a pianist in the New York City of the 1940s. The central character is learning to play the K.365 concerto with his teacher. The fiction is filled with accurate and insightful details about the piece.
I asked Ax if he knew about the book. "I just love it!" said Ax. "I thought that book was really fabulous. It is difficult for a writer to do this kind of thing well but he did a phenomenal job. I've read it several times actually."
In addition to preparing Beethoven and Mozart concertos this season, Ax is learning "Couleurs de la cité céleste" (Colors of the Celestial City), for solo piano and ensemble by Olivier Messiaen to play with the New York Philharmonic this spring. "And I'm working on a lot of Schubert."
Emanuel Ax performs with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra Saturday at 8 p.m., at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $90-$125. The full event is $350 a person, including cocktails and dinner before the performance, and dessert with the artists afterwards. Information: 860-244-2999 and http://www.hartfordsymphony.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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