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Interview with Emanuel Ax

The beauty is in the... fingers of beholder

A day after my valued colleague and friend Harry Rolnick posted his review of the concert given by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert with the participation of pianist Emanuel Ax, I was able to attend the second performance of that program and at the same time I was also able to conduct an interview with this esteemed soloist who, during these subscription concerts, gave the world premiere of the Piano Concerto by Austrian composer HK Gruber. The initials preceding his last name stand for Heinz Karl; those who know him personally use his nickname Nali. Mr. Gruber, who was in attendance for these concerts, received enthusiastic applause alongside the performers from the audience in the well-packed David Geffen Hall.

The Piano Concerto was a co-commission by four major symphony orchestras: The New York Philharmonic, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich.

E. Ax (© NY Phil Archives)

I know that it is not the first time that you have offered the world premiere of a new piano concerto: what makes you the “go-to” pianist when such a need arises?
Yes, it is not my first world premiere. The first one was a work by Christopher Rouse, a piece called Seeing, the second was Red Silk Dance by Bright Sheng, and then we did another piece by Bright Sheng, The Song and Dance of Tears, an unusual work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a man who played a mouth-organ called sheng, Wu Man played the pipa and I played the piano. So with the NY Phil it is my number four. And then of course there were other premieres: the Joseph Schwantner Piano Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin, John Adams Century Rolls with the Cleveland Orchestra, and a piece by Melinda Wagner titles Extremity of Sky (a piano concerto), which I did with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

And what about the Tristan which you also played with the NY Phil.?
Oh, my goodness, that was long ago! It was, I think, about 1982-83? That was not the premiere performance, though it was first in NY and I did it with the composer Hans Werner Henze conducting. And then, there was the Philadelphia and NY premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Piano Concerto Resurrection with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Maestro Sawallisch conducting.
As for being a “go-to” pianist: I don’t think so, there are of course other pianists. But indeed I play with orchestra a lot; they are very nice to me and often it happens that they are always ready to try something new or unusual when it comes along. Not to mention that they are happy to make me practice! (laughs)

In the program notes, Nali (Mr. HK Gruber) mentions that he is not interested in virtuosity for its own sake “though the work is written specifically for the hands and musical gifts of Manny Ax”. Then he explains: “In all my concertos I’ve viewed the soloist as a tip of a symphonic iceberg. The orchestra provides an echo chamber for the material of the pianist, whose “factual” discourse is resonated through tuned percussion and harp. The work, progressing through a chain of developing variations, is closest in form to a Sinfonietta with piano solo”. This is all very nice except that it describes nothing and that some people... are not that much into symphonic icebergs. Can you then share with our readers some thoughts on how this concerto came about?
You know, it was a very funny process. You may remember that about 10-11 years ago, I played some concerts with this wonderful bass-player and composer Edgar Meyer. He had suggested that for these concerts, in addition to some standard Bach or Haydn or Schubert, he would write some of his own works and that he was going to commission other composers to write some short pieces for us. So Edgar told me that the composer HK Gruber, who is also a bass player, lives in Vienna and when I am there perhaps I should contact him. I was able to locate him through his manager and when we met for coffee I asked him if he’d write something for Edgar and I. He replied that he was sick of writing for the double-bass but on the other hand his dream was to write a piano concerto. That was exactly 10 years ago. I said OK, do you want me to ask some people here in the States if they are interested and he said yes. I asked people in the NY Phil and indeed they said yes, we like his music, we would be interested. Then his publisher, which at that time was Boosey & Hawkes, asked some other orchestras and thus it became a co-commission. Meanwhile, Nali was writing his next opera, probably Tales from the Vienna Woods, and every time I would see him (about every two years), I’d ask him about the concerto. The answer was always “Well, I am almost ready to start writing the concerto”. Almost ready became the stock answer and finally when I saw him in 2013, I suggested that perhaps the work should be performed at my funeral (laughs). Finally, about three months ago, he sent me about half of the score and nine weeks ago the rest; that resulted in 3 hours a day after day of learning... a lot of practicing.

You mentioned a several composers whose piano concertos you have premiered: how many of them had real knowledge of writing for the piano?
Well, not Penderecki, not Rouse, not Adams, not Nali... But Bright Sheng is a very good pianist.

Would the fact that some of these composers were not pianists deter you, or at least gave you some trepidation towards learning their works?
Over the years, I have encountered works by composers who were not pianists and that alone didn’t make those works less pianistic than ones by composers-pianists. Look, even today you will find some who consider Beethoven’s writing un-pianistic, or similarly Brahms piano music. It means nothing, of course, because Beethoven made the piano what it is! As did Brahms.

What are specific challenges in Gruber’s score?
Look, the music is rhythmically very complex. To me at least, as I am used to playing in 3 or in 4. He constantly changes the bar-lengths, there is constantly playing 5 against 8, syncopations, entrances that are complicated with the orchestra.

Sitting across from you I saw you counting intensely...
Yes, yes, it was difficult... I suppose that since I will play it several times again, I will get used to the rhythmic feeling and I won’t need to count so much. Is it playable? Yes, it is. It’s difficult and needs to be practiced but there are no moments that are impossible.

RM: Did Nali work with you on the piece?
Yes, I met him in Vienna in November and we had about a day and half to meet and talk about things such as tempo markings, dynamics and articulation.

So he has some set ideas about what he wants to hear in his work?
You know, Nali is a very sophisticated musician; he is not only a composer but an experienced conductor, singer and chansonnier, and a fine bass player, which we already mentioned, so he knows exactly what he wants.

Upon first hearing, it was not easy for me to grasp everything that goes on, such as the form or absorb all the textures, such as the dialogue between the piano and ensemble. Other than the fact that it’s one continuous movement, what else would you say in describing this concerto?
It starts, as you probably read in the program notes, with a piano solo and that the beginning is taken from a famous scene of seduction of the house chanteuse in a cheap, gaudy cabaret-brothel. In the background, you hear the dotted rhythm of the band...

And in that fragment, I was able to appreciate Alan’s ingenious choice for the opening piece, as the Weill suite from his Three-Penny Opera has exactly one such fragment...
The variations which unfold are based on a quickening pulse, and as it goes on it becomes more and more rhythmically complex. Then there is this quasi-Brahmsian cadenza, which Nali plans to extend for the upcoming performances (he might add another minute or so); then the constant syncopations alternating 3+2+3, 2+3, 3+2, 3+2+3 or something along those lines, as the tempo becomes more and more hectic. There is this jazzy exchange between the piano and orchestra. And then there is a rousing ending and with luck we get a lot of applause. (laughs)

Hopefully in other places...
... yes, since the piece was co-commissioned by four orchestras [mentioned in the preface], I will play it in Berlin under Rattle, then Stockholm under Sakari Oramo, Zurich under Bringuier and also in Vienna with the Wiener Symphoniker and in Paris with the Orchestre de Radio France...

So for once you’ll get a good mileage from your many hours spent learning this piece! Which brings me to another question: of the works you premiered that we mentioned earlier, how many have you come back to subsequent to the premiere performances?
I did the Adams concerto Century Rolls frequently for a few years and it was also played by some other pianists. The Rouse was also played in several places, Melinda Wagner’s only in New York and Toronto, The Song and Dance of Tears by Sheng was performed and also recorded by him. As I am getting older, I am not sure I will be able to play all of them again... (here the interviewer mutters: nonsense!!!).

Well, it is remarkable how many contemporary pieces you’ve played and especially when one very famous, admired by many, younger than you pianist, here to remain nameless, for years already shies away from learning new repertory...
I’d happily trade away all of those pieces to be able to play one or two works the way he plays!

What I also mean to say is that so many contemporary works are performed by the artists who commissioned them and then quickly disappear...
I think that we have to accept one lesson regarding contemporary music, whether difficult or easy. From every period of music, there are only a few pieces that survive. Take, for example, the fact that we have nine symphonies by Beethoven. In that same period of time, there were hundreds of similar works of which we have not heard a note. History is a very harsh judge. All I can do is to learn new works, perform them, and hope that they are good enough to survive.

That brings up another question concerning the expansion of one’s repertory. One way is to learn a work which you have heard someone else play, decide you like it and include it in your repertory. The problem with works where you end up being the first performer is that you never know what you will get and still you have to accept it.
With commissioned works, you have to accept the result. If you have respect for the composer, you will learn it even if you are not crazy about it.

Seems to me that the responsibility of performing new works is a little like spinach: it doesn’t always taste good, but it’s good for you.
True, but like spinach, new music may also be both: healthy and delicious.

Listening to you last night brought on a thought: this concerto seems to be a good pendant to Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety; what do you think?
As we already said, Nali is very versatile and very much at home with the style of Berlin cabaret ala Kurt Weill, but also being a bass player, he has in him a strong influence of jazz, the way Bernstein did. Yes, there is a bit of that jazzy Bernstein...

... which perhaps Mr. Ax could add to his repertory and perhaps record it with the Gruber? Don’t you think it would be a good coupling?
Too difficult! I wouldn’t be able to learn it now. But perhaps Nali’s concerto, while being performed in Berlin, will be also recorded by their orchestra: they have that Digital Concert Hall, so probably...

I can’t wait to hear it close-up and I am sure Sir Simon will bring the best to his band. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts on this music, and congratulations on a splendid and authoritative performance. I am sure it’s nice to realize that “my performance of Gruber is, for now at least, definitive!”

[Interview with Roman Markowicz]



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