Pianist  Emanuel  Ax

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




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Born in modern day Lvov, Poland, on June 8, 1949, Emanuel Ax moved to Winnipeg, Canada, with his family when he was a young boy. His studies at the Juilliard School were supported by the sponsorship of the Epstein Scholarship Program of the Boys Clubs of America, and he subsequently won the Young Concert Artists Award. Additionally, he attended Columbia University where he majored in French. Mr. Ax made his New York debut in the Young Concert Artists Series, and captured public attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. In 1975 he won the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists followed four years later by the coveted Avery Fisher Prize. He has been on the Juilliard faculty since 1990.

Always a committed exponent of contemporary composers, with works written for him by John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bright Sheng, and Melinda Wagner already in his repertoire, most recently he has added HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto, and Samuel Adams’ Impromptus.

A Sony Classical exclusive recording artist since 1987, recent releases include Mendelssohn Trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, Strauss’ Enoch Arden narrated by Patrick Stewart, and discs of two-piano music by Brahms and Rachmaninoff with Yefim Bronfman. In 2015 Deutche Grammophon released a duo recording with Mr. Perlman of Sonatas by Faure and Strauss, which the two artists presented on tour during the 2015/2016 season. Mr. Ax has received GRAMMY® Awards for the second and third volumes of his cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas. He has also made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano [recording booklet cover shown below]. His other recordings include the concertos of Liszt and Schoenberg, three solo Brahms albums, an album of tangos by Astor Piazzolla, and the premiere recording of John Adams’s Century Rolls with the Cleveland Orchestra for Nonesuch.

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In the 2004/05 season Mr. Ax contributed to an International EMMY® Award-Winning BBC documentary commemorating the Holocaust that aired on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2013, Mr. Ax’s recording Variations received the Echo Klassik Award for Solo Recording of the Year (19th century music/Piano).

A frequent partner for chamber music, he has worked regularly with such artists as Young Uck Kim, Cho-Liang Lin, Mr. Ma, Edgar Meyer, Peter Serkin, Jaime Laredo, and the late Isaac Stern.

Mr. Ax resides in New York City with his wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki. They have two children together, Joseph and Sarah. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary doctorates of music from Skidmore College, Yale University, and Columbia University.

--  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  



 



Emanuel Ax has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on several occasions, and recorded the Brahms Piano Concerto #1 conducted by James Levine [shown below-left].  
In mid-April of 1999, Ax was playing Century Rolls by John Adams, with the CSO, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.  This was one of my half-concerts, where I attended the first half of the program, and then did an interview with the soloist during the second half.  After intermission we met backstage in his dressing room for the conversation.

ax Ax had commissioned the work, and had premiered it and recorded it two years previously with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Christoph von Dohnányi.  He also played it with the London Symphony led by the composer in 1998.  

 
Bruce Duffie:   You’ve just come from playing a new piece.  You play a new works, and you play standard repertoire.  From this huge array of piano music, how do you decide what you’re going to learn and what you’re going put aside?

Emanuel Ax:   Oh, a tough question!  Part of what I have to decide is that I’m pretty determined to do at least some new music, and because of that, there’s probably going to be big chunks of the standard repertoire that I’ll never get to.  I’m trying to learn one fairly sizable new piece a year.

BD:   Solo or concerto, or does it matter?

EA:   It doesn’t really matter.  It’s tending to be concertos at the moment just because of the way things have worked out, although two years ago, I learned a piece by Peter Lieberson, a set of variations, and last year was the Adams concerto.  This year, in about three weeks, we’re premiering a piece by Chris Rouse [Seeing, conducted by Leonard Slatkin] with the New York Philharmonic, and next year there is going to be a piece with the Boston Symphony by Bright Sheng [Red Silk Dance, conducted by Robert Spano].

BD:   Sheng was here in Chicago, as composer-in-residence at Lyric Opera.

EA:   Right!  Then, maybe two years after, I think I’m getting a concerto from Krzystof Penderecki [Resurrection, premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2002 with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Wolfgang Sawallisch].  That’s what it looks like for the future.

BD:   Do you like knowing that there are pieces being written for you to be played next year, and the year after, and the year after that?

EA:   It’s exciting, and it’s also pretty intimidating.  It’s very labor-intensive.  It’s a lot of work.

BD:   Too much work?

EA:   Sometimes.  Obviously, it depends how hard the piece turns out to be.  The Rouse piece is very difficult.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s just part of the hazards of learning stuff that hasn’t been out there.

BD:   You don’t need to specifically say which ones, but have there been times that you have looked at a new piece, or even had a piece written for you, and you’ve finally decided you can’t cope with it?

EA:   There’s one time, actually very recently, that I just gave up on a piece because it just turned out not to be for me.  It’s a piece that happens to have been played very well by two other people.  It just doesn’t fit me, so I gave up on it.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You have the usual assortment of fingers on each hand...

EA:   [Smiles]  Yes, it may be a personality thing, that it just doesn’t feel like something I want to spend a lot of time on.  Sometimes it’s that.  There’s also been a couple of cases of learning a piece, and playing it once, but knowing that I don’t like it.  That’s a lot of work for something that’s not so rewarding.

BD:   Now the other side of the coin.  Do you find there are some pieces which are written for you that you really get into and wish you could play year after year after year?

EA:   The Adams is turning out to be not only a popular piece with a lot of orchestras, but a piece that I like very much.  I hope that the Rouse will turn out the same way.  He’s a wonderful composer, and I’m hoping for good things from that.  You always hope that if you learn a new piece that you will be involved in giving life to something that lasts, something that people really like.

BD:   Is it important to you that the audience like each piece that you play?

ax EA:   It’s important that there be something that draws me, or the orchestra, or the audience to the piece.  It’s hard to explain, but the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, which I've played quite a lot [shown at right], is a piece audiences don’t readily take to.  But I’ve become very involved with it, and I like playing it, and orchestras find it intriguing.  He’s an important composer, and ultimately, audiences find something to come back to in that piece.  It’s not so much that they have to like it, but there should be something that grabs somebody.

BD:   Is that idea of
hoping the audience likes it different in a new piece from, say, a Beethoven concerto, or a Haydn sonata?

EA:   Yes, it’s different in a number of ways.  It’s different, first of all, because the effect of the piece is what’s judged first, as opposed to the effect of the performance.  At this point, with Beethoven concertos the issue of the piece rarely comes up.  In fact, sometimes people forget to think about the piece, and they focus on what’s going on in the piece, to the extent that they’re always thinking about how this pianist did that, or how this performance came off, because these are such standard pieces now.

BD:   Do we know them too much?

EA:   We perhaps take them for granted in a certain way.  I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but it would be wonderful if somehow we could find a way of starting the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto where it is truly a shock that in measure six the orchestra plays in B major.  It would not even be so much that the pianist starts
because that’s an obvious shockbut the idea that the orchestra plays the same top note as the piano in a totally different key.  In a standard piano concerto, that is truly unbelievable.  It must have been an incredible effect when it first happened because people were completely lost.

BD:   Could we change it around, and have you explain the Beethoven Fourth Concerto when you’re going to play something new that will shock people today, and make them draw the comparison?

EA:   Sometimes I think that it would be very good with what I just did with the Adams, such as when I talked to people a little bit about it.  Maybe we could do that before standard repertory pieces, and just talk about an aspect of the piece that interests us in particular.  For instance, in the Beethoven Fourth, the psychology of the opening interests me enormously because there are so many surprises.  There’s the fact that the piano plays first; there’s the fact that the piano plays louder than the orchestra, which is not often done...

BD:   [Interrupting]  I just assumed that the balance was the responsibility of the conductor.

EA:   No, the piano is marked piano, dolce [sweetly], and the orchestra’s marked pianissimo.  That’s another intended effect on the part of Beethoven.  So, I’d love to talk sometime about all these things, and point out the series of surprises that Beethoven must have wanted to spring on his public.

BD:   Is that part of the point of a new composition
to have surprises?

EA:   I don’t know about today.  One of the things we’re struggling with is that we’re running out of the possibility of surprises
not only in music, but in everything.  I don’t know if you follow movies at all, but I remember when the Terminator movies came out, what an unbelievable thing it was to see the special effects that were done.  Everyone was talking about them, and now they’re taken for granted.  Now you see them on the television screen when they televise football games.  All these things have become part-and-parcel of our experience.  It’s very difficult to surprise and shock anyone.

BD:   Kids who are going to the new Star Wars movie say that the old Star Wars movie looks ‘clunky.’

EA:   Exactly.

BD:   So, how do you make sure your performance isn’t ‘clunky’?

EA:   I don’t know!!!  I really don’t know.  I do what I can, and I try to approach things from the point of view of what it means to me, and what it must have felt like, and what it still feels like to me in terms of surprise, shock, astonishment.  Maybe that transmits itself, but I don’t know.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the really easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

EA:   [Laughs]  I guess you dance around it because I don’t really want to answer that!  Oh, gosh, there are so many levels on which you can answer that.  If I can make this a fairly elaborate answer, it’s a combination of things.  The first purpose is entertainment
not the first as most important, but the first is most obvious.

ax BD:   It
s the first one we get to?

EA:   Yes.  The first one we get to is one of the things that music does
we entertain.  We go to a concert in order to have a good time in one way or another.  We go to a concert to see excellent performances, brilliant performances.  We want to see people who do things that are very difficult with ease.  We go for pieces that astonish, delight, move, make us enjoy a night out, or give us that kind of lifta two-hour good time.  That’s one level, and in a way, the most immediate.  A second level is food for thought.  You go, and with any luck you will experience something during the evening, if not the whole evening.  Some things during the evening will make you think, when you go home, about what kind of picture that it created in your imagination.  In that respect, music has a very special niche in our world, because music is like mathematicsa completely arbitrary, enclosed system.  No one can tell you what a piece of music means.  You get to decide what it means.  It’s not a drama with words.  It’s not a painting of something.  It’s not a poem with elaborate words.  The only meaning it has is the meaning that you yourself put on it.

BD:   So there’s an immediate reaction, and also a lasting reaction?

EA:   One hopes!  That’s an important aspect of music.  It’s different from other arts, in the sense that your imagination is stimulated in a very personal, individual, and particular way, and I hope that third level
or whatever depth of level it isis a spiritual uplifting.  When you hear a piece of music that’s great, that somehow penetrates to your innermost feelings and imagination, you really do connect with the best and highest that man is capable of.

BD:   Do you look for the spirituality in each piece that you play?

EA:   It’s inescapable.  It’s something that you hope is there in every piece of music you play, in one way or another.  Sometimes it’s very much just how brilliant it is; how incredibly difficult, and how the person on stage has mastered this difficulty.  It’s kind of a God-like achievement, and sometimes you’re almost moved to beyond tears.  You just get a very open feeling in your emotional core.

BD:   A feeling of peace?

EA:   Yes, or love, or whatever you put on it.  One of the nice things about music is that I don’t have to put a name to it.  That’s what I like.

BD:   [Wistfully]  Maybe you’re answering my question about the meaning of music every time you sit down at the keyboard.

EA:   [Laughs]  I
m sure that’s not true, but sometimes I’d like to think I am.

BD:   Is this, perhaps, what separates the great pieces from the not-so-great pieces
the amount or content of spirituality?

EA:   That’s possible.  The only thing is that all those things change according to the times we live in, and the different meanings pieces take on.  For instance, eighty-five or ninety years ago, Mahler was not respected as a composer by many people, and not many people felt moved by Mahler.

BD:   But his conducting was respected?

EA:   Yes, but his music was not seen as something that was deep, beautiful, and uplifting.  Yet today, the Mahler symphonies are at the forefront of what would be called great spiritual music.  When you talk about the Mahler Sixth Symphony, or the Mahler Eighth Symphony, you’re talking about the touchstones of musical spirituality.

BD:   It took a while for us to collectively to come to him?

EA:   Yes, and we may go away again.  That’s the thing, you never know.  Although I hope never to see it, it’s possible that there’ll be a time when the Beethoven symphonies are not as meaningful as they are now.

BD:   Even if that might give other pieces that we don’t listen to very often, more of a chance?

EA:   Even that!  But I think they’re safe for my lifetime, anyway.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of musical performance?

EA:   Yes, I think so.  I tend to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.  I know there’s a lot of talk about the aging of audiences, but from a very limited and personal perspective
not a survey in any senseaudiences seem to be older everywhere simply because people are living longer, and the people that are younger are working harder and doing more.  There’s just more to do, more possibilities, so any one activity is going to have fewer and fewer people devoted to it, at least as a percentage.  But numerically I think we’re fine, and I still see a lot of young people at things.  I still see a lot of people who like music, at the universities, anyway.  I’m hoping for the best.

ax BD:   I hope this translates into bodies in seats at concerts.

EA:   I hope so too.  What musicians can do about it is change, perhaps, the trappings of concerts.  To a certain degree, it’s important to connect with audiences in a different way than we used to.

BD:   Have you any suggestions about that?

EA:   Seventy-five or eighty years ago, the artist was seen as somebody very distant from the audience, and part of the interest in the artist was exactly that mystery
the idea of the man in tails who nobody knew anything about.  We had no idea if he likes baseball, and it would have been a little disappointing to see Horowitz eating hot-dogs, and to find out that he does what I do.  Probably because we now see people on television, there is a feeling that there’s an intimacy, generally speaking, between everybody.  People are just seen as more a part of your own life.  I find it’s important to talk to audiences.  It’s important to get rid of certain unrealistic and outmoded rules, such as applauding between movements.  The whole business of frowning upon applause between movements is nonsensical.  It has nothing to do with the real experience of the pieces of the great cannon we’re talking about.  Certainly, if Beethoven had not received applause at the end of the first movement of the Emperor Concerto, he would have been devastated.  It would have been a disaster of major proportions.  How can you write an ending like that and not expect applause?  Don’t you feel like applauding at the end of the first movement of a Tchaikovsky Concerto?  Isn’t it normal to just yell ‘bravo’?  So why would you want to have everybody ‘Sssshhh’ the one person who dares to actually applaud this feat?  It’s a rule that should be abolished.

BD:   Should we then applaud in our homes when we listen to recordings?

EA:   If we feel like it.  I don’t whether people would feel like it because there’s nobody receiving the applause.  The point of applause is something you do for the person on stage.  You’re not applauding for your sake.

BD:   It’s not a release for me?

EA:   I hope it’s some release for you, but it’s also letting the person on stage know that you approve of what has just happened.  It just seems normal to me, and it was always done, and somehow I don’t know where it happened that this suddenly stopped being the norm.  [Roger Norrington spoke to BD about this during our interview.]  People used to applaud between variations in Mozart’s slow movements.  There’s a famous letter from Mozart’s father about K. 482, the E-Flat Piano Concerto, which has a second movement with variations.  He writes with great pride about Wolfgang’s new concerto being a tremendous success, and in the second movement, the C major variation, was such a delight that they repeated it on the spot.

BD:   So, we’ve lost some of the spontaneity?

EA:   I think so, yes.  The concept of the Master not being disturbed by human hands is somehow not part and parcel of the real experience in a concert hall.   People know when not to applaud.  If you let people applaud when they wanted to, then they wouldn’t want to applaud at the end of the Verdi Requiem.  They’d applaud after the Sanctus, but they wouldn’t applaud so quickly at the end of Libera Me.

BD:   Because it ends so quietly?

EA:   Because it ends so quietly, and they would just not feel like applauding.  But now you have people who hush everybody who applauds after the Sanctus, and yet are the first to start yelling ‘bravo’ at the end of this Libera Me...

BD:   ... which breaks the mood.  There was a wonderful performance here some years ago of the Mahler Ninth, with Abbado conducting, and at the very end there was just dead silence.  He put his arms down, the violinists put their instruments down, and it was ninety seconds before there was a huge outburst of applause!

EA:   That’s it!  Good audience!  There was an audience like that in London, which was absolutely wonderful.  They applauded at the end of the first movement of the Mozart concerto, and I thought it was nice.  Then, the Tchaikovsky Sixth was on the second half of the program, and they did not applaud at the end of the Scherzo because they knew that this thing of despair was coming.  It was interesting that they responded to the mood of the piece.

BD:   You obviously play for the audience that is there.  Do you feel differently with different audiences in different parts of the world, or different cities in America?

EA:   Sure, sure, and I’m sure I’ll feel different here from Thursday night to Friday afternoon to Saturday night.  Every audience is different, and you sense it.  It comes back to you.

BD:   Do you play differently for the microphone when you make recordings?

EA:   Very!  First of all, it’s an adjustment to the whole dynamic range.  You get a lot softer.  You have to.  If the recording microphone picks up a concert, it’s a whole different set-up for live recording from studio recording.  It’s a very different experience.  With a studio recording, the whole process is to go and listen, repair what you don’t like, go and listen again and repair what you don’t like.  So, you get a much more considered version, and it probably loses some of the spontaneity of performance.  But the things that you get instead are a kind of total view of the piece.  There’s always a trade-off.  It’s difficult to record well.  It’s very hard.

BD:   Even though you can cut and paste just the right things into it?

EA:   Even then, unless you take a long time doing it.  Maybe, with the luxury of a lot of money and time, what might be a good idea would be to record things a couple of weeks apart.  Do sessions on one day, and then do more sessions a week later, so you can compare what you heard.  Because of the immediacy of listening and playing, sometimes it leads you to rounding things off too much, to being boring.  It’s very difficult.

ax BD:   You wouldn’t rather just go into the studio, play it twice and hope they can cover all the mistakes?

EA:   Sometimes that doesn’t work either.  Recording depends a lot on your mood, and on the set-up, and what the hall is sounding like.  It’s all very touchy.  [Laughs]

BD:   Are you pleased with your records?

EA:   [Thinks a moment, then makes a funny face]  Once in a great while.  I’m quite happy with the Chopin concertos on the old Érard piano that have just come out [shown at left].  That’s not bad.  That’s somehow a fairly spontaneous recording.  Maybe because I felt free because of the instrument.  I knew that it wouldn’t sound meticulously perfect because the instrument’s not perfect, so I didn’t worry about it.  I just played, and the orchestra was so wonderful.  They’re such a wonderful bunch of people, with so much enthusiasm and knowledge that you just felt like you were in the middle of something very exciting.

BD:   When someone comes up to you and says that they love this or that recording, are you pleased?

EA:   I’m always pleased whenever somebody says they enjoyed it.  I’m always happy, even if I don’t think it’s great.

BD:   Do people ever come up to you and say something was terrible?

EA:   [Sighs]  Not usually, I must say as a rule.  People are too shy.  I’m sure they think it, but they normally don’t say it.  It’s not something you normally say, I guess.  [Laughs]  I certainly wouldn’t seek out people to say that.

BD:   We get that sometimes at the radio station, so that’s why I was wondering if the live artist gets it, too.

EA:   No.  I’ll see bad reviews of myself, and it hurts a lot.  It’s very difficult to live with that.

BD:   So, why do you read the reviews?

EA:   Because I can’t help it!  If I could steel myself to the point of not picking up the paper, I would.  I’m terribly impressed my friend Yo-Yo.  He actually, quite honestly, is able to ignore it.  He’ll read the paper if it’s in front of him, but he will not cross the street to buy it.  It just doesn’t affect him to the point where he needs to look at it, and that’s so marvelous.  I’m really impressed with that.

BD:   I would assume, though, that most of your reviews are positive.

EA:   I
m generally fairly lucky with them, but part of being in front of an audience is that there are many opinions, and, of course, there’s always the chance you will get your share of bad ones.

BD:   How much does your opinion count?

EA:   I like to feel good about what I did, but again that’s a strange kind of input because I can know professionally that I did something well, or I did it badly.  I know that I played correctly, and I played cleanly.  I didn’t mess it up, so I say that was professionally very good.  How I communicated is a different issue.

BD:   That’s when it becomes personal?

EA:   Absolutely.  If you see a review that says,
He played in a very messy way, then I can discount it.  If I know that I played very cleanly, I can just say, Well, here’s a guy who just doesn’t have good ears.  But if the review says, He played very cleanly, but it was a cold, uncommunicative performance.  It left me completely bored.  I felt nothing, there’s nothing I can say, except I really feel bad that I didn’t communicate to him.

BD:   Are there times when you feel that you really haven’t communicated, even if the review says
it was wonderful?

EA:   I don’t know.  I try to make friends with the audience, and most of the time I feel that I’m connected on some level, at least with the general run of people.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you sit down at the piano, and you’ve got this massive instrument in front of you, are you playing an instrument or does it become an extension of you?

EA:   It’s not an extension of me, but I like to make friends with it.   I like to feel that it’s my partner, it’s my colleague, and I approach the instrument that way.  I don’t like pianos that resist me, and I don’t like pianos that are angular.  I like pianos that are brilliant, but only when I want them to be.

ax BD:   You’re the master?

EA:   In a way I suppose, but I like to make friends with the instrument.

BD:   How long does that take when you first meet the piano?

EA:   If it’s a good piano, thirty seconds.  I don’t need much time.

BD:   Are the pianos that you get around the world, basically good instruments?

EA:   Things are getting a lot better.  It used to be tougher fifteen or twenty years ago.

BD:   Why?  Lack of technicians?  [See my interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, 1968-1992]

EA:   I think partly the product has improved.  Steinway has really improved their pianos.

BD:   I thought everyone wanted the old Steinways.

EA:   The pianos being made now are very good, very, very good.  I’m very impressed with the stuff I see.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So we should chuck the old stuff and get the new ones?

EA:   [Smiles]  There was a period when things were not working out... not necessarily because nobody cared, but they were trying different things.  They were trying parts that were made of Teflon instead of felt and wood because they thought it would be more uniform.  That didn’t work out.  They were trying different actions, and were making little adjustments in the actions.  Those didn’t work out.  Some of the wood that they were trying to use just didn’t work out well.  I don’t think that anybody meant to do a bad job, but they weren’t just coming out well.  Now things are working wonderfully.  The German side and the American side have managed to make friends, so there’s more of hybrid.  All the pianos are becoming better.  They’re getting some good American sound and some good German technology, and marrying it, and it’s working out well.

BD:   For a long time, everybody insisted on using the German Steinway.

EA:   Yes, in which the mechanism was beautiful, and sometimes the sound was beautiful, but sometimes it could be very shrill and not attractive.  It was not singing.

BD:   Just in the upper registers or over all?

EA:   Over all, I would say.  It went in different directions.  The American Steinway tended to get duller and duller, and the German Steinway tended to get more and more brittle as time went on.  So, it’s nice to see them melding now.  It’s a very attractive time for pianos.

BD:   Do you ever play anything but the standard Steinway?  Do you play fortepiano or harpsichord, or anything like that?

EA:   I’ve done these recordings on the Érard from 1851, but that’s basically all.

BD:   Did you like the action or the touch of it?

EA:   It’s nice!  It’s not that different.  You still need a lot of power and a lot of technique.

BD:   Is there enough resistance in it?

EA:   Yes, but it’s not as easy to play as people think.  It’s not so light.

*     *     *     *     *

ax BD:   When you play a concerto, do you try to get it to be like chamber music?

EA:   Very much.  There’s no substitute for feeling that there are friends around.  That’s the best.

BD:   Is the audience among those friends?

EA:   Sure, we do hope they are.  You hope they’re listening carefully, and are really involved in what’s going on.

BD:   What advice do you have for young pianists coming along?

EA:   [Thinks a moment]  Not much.  In terms of studying, I would say the more you listen to other people, and the more you listen to the great people of the past, the more you learn.  You can learn so much from hearing the big pianists.  I haunted Carnegie Hall when I was kid, and I learned from everybody.  I learned so much from Horowitz, from Rubinstein, from Serkin, from Gilels, from Richter.  These were fabulous role models.

BD:   Can you learn anything from an unknown pianist?

EA:   Sure, you can learn from everybody!  I’m just bringing up these names because they were really great.  When you heard a guy like Gilels play a Schubert sonata, you wanted to produce that sound.  He was an incredible pianist, and a great man.

BD:   Are you a great pianist?

EA:   [Laughs]  God, I don’t think so!  I don’t even know what that means, but I doubt it.

BD:   Do you strive for it?

EA:   Yes, but everyone strives for it.

BD:   Do you find yourself improving year after year, season after season?

EA:   Without being arrogant, I think yes, I am getting better.  Mind you, I started at a point where there was so much room for improvement that this was easy to do.  One of the things that I am proud of about myself is that right now, at the age of forty-nine, I really feel like a student, and all I want to do is keep practicing for thirty years.  That can’t help but lead to better results.

BD:   But I assume you don’t want to practice for thirty years and then go out and play.  You must want to play during those thirty years.

EA:   Sure.  One of the ways you learn is by playing.  You learn so much from concerts.  It’s a never-ending process, and I hope I still have time and the physical ability, the physical wherewithal to get better.

BD:   What advice do you have for those who want to write for the piano these days, either solo or concerto?

EA:   Ah!  [Thinks again]  My advice would be to not be afraid to try to do it, but be very open to suggestions from pianists.  Ask them about technical things
what feels good, what doesn’t feel goodand not to try to write things that are difficult just to attract pianists.  Sometimes, composers think that if they make things easy, nobody will play them because it’s too easy.  Sometimes it’s just the opposite.  Pianists don’t want to work for six months to learn a piece.  They’d rather work for three weeks and learn a piece.

BD:   But then it has to make an impact on you.

EA:   Yes.  I’m just saying sometimes composers feel they have to make it difficult and challenging, not because they want to, but because pianists won’t do it unless they write something very thorny, with thirty-second notes and lots of octaves.  That’s not necessary.  If you don’t want to write lots of octaves, don’t do it!   That’s fine.  It doesn’t have to be thorny.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  But you don’t want it too simple and too straightforward, do you?

EA:   No.  Ideally, I want it just right!  [Both laugh]

BD:   When you play these pieces, you’re getting inside the mind of the composer.  How much is the composer and how much is Ax?

EA:   I’ve no idea!  You’d like to feel that it’s all the composer.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  You don’t put anything of yourself into it???

EA:   By definition, you put all of yourself into it.  I never know how to answer that question, because saying I don’t put any of myself into it would mean literally that I don’t play.  As soon as you play, you’re putting yourself into it, so it’s a question of what kind of personality you want to project.  If you want to project a faceless personality, that’s what you’re putting into it.  You’re putting into it a faceless attitude, and I don’t really want to do that.  [Laughs]  So, I guess I put a lot of myself into it, but I don’t do it in the sense that it is in opposition to what the composer wants.  Personality is not saying,
I’m going to play soft even when Beethoven writes loud!  Personality is saying, I’m going to do this forte where Beethoven writes it, but the fortes are going to be the way I’d like it.

ax BD:   Is it safe to assume that you like the pieces you keep in your repertoire?

EA:   Yes, I think that’s probably safe to say.  [Much laughter all around]

BD:   You mentioned that you are forty-nine.  Are you at the point in your career where you want to be at this age?

EA:   Knock on wood, I’m healthy.  I have two great children, and I have a wonderful wife.

BD:   Do you see them enough?

EA:   [Thinks a moment]  A few years ago I would have answered no, but maybe I do.  We talk all the time.  One of the reasons we have what I hope is a very good marriage, is that I do tend to go away.  I think my wife is pleased when I leave!  Summer is when we’re together, the whole summer, but by the first week of September she’s ready for me to make a trip somewhere!  [Laughs]  Now my kids are twenty and fifteen, so it’s very different, but for a long time their schedule governed my schedule.  Their vacations would be my vacations.

BD:   So, you told your agent those dates?

EA:   Yes.  Either I have to have a concert in Honolulu where we can all go, or I just have to be at home, and that was fine.  In another couple of years, when my daughter goes off to college, we’ll be out the other side, and I don’t know what we’ll do.

BD:   [Providing a helpful suggestion]  Have your wife travel with you a little bit?

EA:   I think we’ll do more of that.  I hope we’ll spend a little more time in Europe together, which we’ve never gotten the chance to do.  I look forward to it.  It will be another way of life.

BD:   One last question.  Is playing the piano fun?

EA:   Sometimes it’s the most fun in the world, and sometimes it’s the hardest work in the world.  It can be both, it can really be both.

BD:   Even at the same time?

EA:   Even at the same time.  The only thing I would say is that I’m one of the lucky few in the world that are doing, for a living, exactly what they would like to do, and that’s a blessing we should never forget.  That’s one of the great things you can have in life.

BD:   You’re looking at another who shares that blessing!  We are very lucky.

EA:   That’s how it should be, but so many people don’t have that privilege.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago.  Will you be back again soon?

EA:   I’ll be back next season a couple of times as a guest at Symphony Center, to do something with a visiting orchestra from Germany, and a Benefit for the Merit Music Program.  And the year after I’ll be back with the Symphony again.  I come back fairly regularly.

BD:   Good.  I’m glad we’ve had this chance to chat.  I appreciate it very much.

EA:   Thank you, it’s a real pleasure.  Nice to meet you.




ax





© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on April 15, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and on WNUR in 2004.  That program was also featured as a podcast during 2010.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.