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A noble man of brilliance – Emanuel Ax Interview

Emanuel Ax is irrefutably a name any audience in the World, let alone in Asia, would associate two “C” words with: comfort and command. From his romancing touches on the keyboard to his inspiring documentaries on the Canadian Broadcasting Company radio station, “Manny” is never lacking audience in whatever projects he strives, and the “C” words are only at the tip of the iceberg to what defines the man. A true humble artist he is, in the highest order, “Manny” always has something new to share with what he does best – as a pianist. This very afternoon, Patrick Lam converses with an old-friend from the great West about his stopover in Hong Kong as part of his Asian tour.

“Manny”, who is one year short from his sixtieth birthday, is a true phenomenon. A multi-talented artist, pianist, chamber musician, teacher, husband and father of two children, Emanuel Ax’s achievements in the pages of music history attract as much attention as his current musical artistry. To Manny, race and boundaries are beside the point: “Our world is so small now, everything so convenient. We need not bother ourselves anymore with such nonsense as ‘Polish pianists play Chopin better than so-and-so, who is another pianist of different nationality or cultural background’ or such static identity as ‘Schools’ or ‘lineage’ that a musician belongs to. An artist, nowadays, is the integration of various cultures and background, and to me, the challenge in music is how to bridge this understanding.” Manny further illustrates his point with an example: “Comm’on, think of it this way … I dare say Yo-Yo [cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Manny’s long-time musical partner] surely knows a great deal more about Beethoven than many of us, let alone even some Germans may. Boundaries and national ‘schools’ of music are simply not the critical topic in music anymore.”

Agreed, this is in steep contrast to some common belief from a conserved sect of music idealists out there, who may continue to fall short in believing that a “Polish-born pianist” must have a tad-more to say (or more at an advantage) playing the music of Chopin simply because they share a common root of origin, flow the same sanguineous line tracing down the very soils of Poland. But, to Manny, who was born in Lvov, raised in Winnipeg, who now lives in New York and is married to a Japanese pianist, his Polish roots has shaped his development as a musician beyond the works of Chopin, while his cross-cultural experiences over the years embarked a richness in his artistry, where he strives excellence equally well in the music of Haydn, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. What makes Manny unique from many other pianists is his ability to unify cultural qualities into one voice, and it is through his music playing, where one becomes instantly attracted to this boundless artistry.

Hong Kong will be one of the several stops in Manny’s Far East tour for the year. When asked what his schedule will be during his stay out in the East and what led to his choice of the Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 in Hong Kong, Manny with his warm smile chuckled: “In fact, I did not choose the Chopin No.2, I think it was Maestro de Waart’s idea. I will also be playing this concerto in Singapore though, where I was invited by the conductor [Lan Shui, one of David Zinman’s student]. Then, I’ll be doing a Mozart Piano Concerto in Sydney, some other things on the side, which includes several recitals here and there, plus a stopover in Japan. But what will be truly remarkable is that it will be our [Manny and Yoko Nozaki] first time visiting Kuala Lumpur, and my wife and I are both very excited about it.” Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) are very privileged to be the host again to Emanuel Ax’s tight schedule this Friday and Saturday, where Maestro de Waart and Manny will join forces again in Hong Kong since their last in November 2004, shortly after Maestro de Waart took the helm as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the HKPO. “I enjoy working with Maestro de Waart, and it is not my first time coming to Hong Kong. I frequently travel to Asia together with Yo-Yo and Yefim Bronfman on tour, and during my previous stays in Asia, I had the privilege to play with many wonderful musicians in China – including orchestral musicians of the China National Music Orchestra [with Yu Long] and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, and of course, the Hong Kong Philharmonic!”

Further his comment about experiences with Asian orchestras, we exchanged a few ideas about views on music development and talents brewing from Asia, and Manny remarked with an interesting angle to the phenomenon: “If you ask me how musicians of the Far East and the West differ, I gotta admit to you first that I haven’t worked with a lot of Asian Orchestras. But, from the ones I have worked with, I must say these musicians in the East are still lacking experiences compared to the West. I recall playing Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat several years back with an Asian orchestra, and I think it was their first-time playing the work! On the contrary, a European orchestra may have played this work more than 100 times already by the time I’m their invited soloist!” Indeed, this has admittedly been an unavoidable short-coming for us Asians musicians in the Far East to tackle any Western art-forms, and in part, it is due to the lack of funding and resources from sponsors to foster training, minimal concert tours abroad and limited orchestra exchanges with those from abroad to broaden musical horizons, and frankly, we both agreed that much work is still needed to improve this short-coming to elevate our artistic standards in the East. But Manny added with optimism: “Thus, it is important to foster music and any forms of the Arts to the young as early as possible, and I am pleased to hear that Hong Kong continues to be one such Asian cities where government and local cultural sectors work diligently and synergistically to lift up the musical standards en par with others on the international platform.”

What about those individual soloists raised and trained in music academies here in Asia? To this end, Manny recalled: “Yes, in 2004, I had the chance to hear some very fine young musicians … a boy and a girl I recalled [Lio Kuok-wai and Rachel Cheung]. The boy I think now is in Curtis, and I would love the chance to meet up with other girl pianist since then. She must be 16 or 17 or so by now. How is she doing?” Of course, the music circle in Hong Kong is all very proud of Rachel’s achievements ever since 2004, having had her debut with the HKPO early this season, and Manny echoed the observation that Asian soil is flourishing young fine talents in the Arts at an astonishing rate.

Turning a steep turn back to the pages on the ivory keys, Chopin in fact has a special meaning to Manny: “Who doesn’t love Chopin? All musicians love Chopin to a certain degree, and I must say Chopin continues to attract me more than ever. It is no surprise for any pianist to appreciate his music and the man – the lush melodies, gushing romanticism and the most poetic musical writing. But even orchestral members humbly love Chopin too to a certain degree! Even though their parts may not be as ‘interesting’ as we have on the keyboard, you simply couldn’t resist Chopin when the notes leap out of the pages! And, as an aside, did you know that Chopin only truly admired the works of Bach and Mozart? All other composers of his contemporaries, even the great Beethoven, Chopin found, was too noisy!” But what does the Chopin Piano Concerti say about the composer himself? Manny shares his years of experience with the following: “Chopin, as you know, wrote these Piano Concerti very young, and the No. 2 in F Minor Op.21 around when he was around 19! Does it offer the pianist a lot of interpretative freedom? In fact, I think not. All the parts and melodies were just perfectly written, not a note could be added or removed in exchange, and about the cultural topic you brought up earlier, in fact Chopin offers a perfect unison of Polish and French cultures so adeptly.” Incidentally, Manny is also a fond and faithful interpreter of music using original instruments, and on this topic of contrasting music played on beautiful pianos of present day to those on period instruments, Manny admits: “We live in a time of our age where he have the luxury of choosing both. I still love playing on my beautiful Steinway, but I equally enjoy the very freedom of performing on period instruments as an alternative. And why not! I think performing on original instruments can offer us [both performer and audience] a chance to appreciate music from different angles and the sound possibilities they can produce.” Manny also elaborated “I recall playing with Yo-Yo on a concert tour some Beethoven programmes using original instruments – I was on a 1826 piano, and Yo-Yo had his instrument specially changed to fit the instrument, and the result was amazing! I’d love to continue experiencing the possibilities on period instruments.”

Time seems to past extremely fast when two friends meet up from a long-overdue conversation, especially those who share common interests, and this was no exception when conversing with Manny. When finally asked about his recording plans and concert schedule up-and-coming, Manny hinted “Yo-Yo and I are planning to tackle the Mendelssohn Cello Sonata as one our next projects – we haven’t yet done any Mendelssohn, and possibly include the Piano Trios on the menu as well, where Yo-Yo and I had performed these works with Itzhak Perlman this year. One thing I would also like to do with Yo-Yo is a second try with the Beethoven Cello Sonatas, and this time, possibly on period instruments just to see how it turns out in recording [their first recording of them was back in the days of CBS Record Masterworks in the 1980s – former Sony Classical]. I’m also looking forward to my many engagements on contemporary work, where composers continue to write for me – mainly in the form of piano concerti. As you mentioned, John Adams is a composer that I admire very much – as musician and friend, and I had première and recorded his Piano Concerto Century Rolls for him in his record label. Then, more recently, H.K. Gruber and Christopher Rouse had each written a concerto for me, and I had première their works which I enjoy continue to perform them in Europe and the States. When it comes to contemporary works, I exchange a lot of feedbacks with the composer to understand their musical worlds and it helps me a great deal to pay proper justice to the composer at the time when I perform their works. However, I take no part in the actual creation of the work - that’s left as the job of the composer. . In terms of solo discs, I’d love to complete the cycle of Haydn Piano Sonatas for Sony, it may take some time as afterall, there are 53 of them in total! [and Manny has only recorded nearly a quarter of them only]. But I’m completely excited about the possibility of recording Schubert – a first-time for me, where I am planning to devote half the disc with the Impromptus and the other will the Sonatas. So … stay tuned!”

With only limited choir stall seats available to Manny’s two evening performances with the HKPO this Friday and Saturday at the Cultural Center, his return to Hong Kong is too great to resist for any reasons. Whether you are young bird lovers, classical music aficionados, or simply hearing Manny for the first time, an Emanuel Ax concert with the wonderful Edo de Waart and the HKPO musicians promises only to bring wonders on the concert stage. If you enjoy reading this conversation, Manny’s musical voice on the ivory keys will only encourage your growing interests on the man to a heightened level – as a pianist, as an artist, as an Ambassador of musical cultures.

Patrick P. L. Lam



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