GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome to our February show where my guest is the first pianist ever to appear – Emanuel Ax on today’s edition of “Mad About Music.”
KAPLAN: In a world where pianists are often admired for their powerful and dazzling techniques, the first pianist to appear on “Mad About Music” is known more for his poetic temperament. He first captured public attention when at age 25 he won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition. And today he criss-crosses the world appearing with leading orchestras performing chamber music with star collaborators playing sold out recitals in the most celebrated concert halls – and continuing his string of award-winning recordings. A few years ago Carnegie Hall even presented an entire concert series built around his artistry. Emanuel Ax, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
EMANUEL AX: Thank you. Nice to be here.
KAPLAN: Now I’m curious always with a great artist, when they knew. When did you know you were on your way to having to be a pianist, and when did you sense you might be a good one?
AX: Well, for me it didn’t happen overnight. It was kind of a process I guess and I certainly was not precocious in any way. I liked the piano. I was seven when I started playing. I enjoyed it, I kept going at it, I kept practicing, not too much. I think when I was fourteen or fifteen I got the feeling that this is something I’d like to do. And as far as knowing that I’d be good at it, I’m still not sure I’m so good at it.
KAPLAN: Well, false humility is not allowed on this show, so I would say that…
AX: Well, I guess what I mean is, I had always lived in New York, and I loved piano playing. I had a lot of friends who were brilliant. It was very good for me to be in a big city like this, to hear all the great artists that I heard, and to sort of realize what was possible ‘cause that’s what keeps you working, I think.
KAPLAN: At that time, who were your heroes who played the piano?
AX: Well, I think probably the usual suspects. Certainly the first and foremost was Rubinstein. I heard him many, many times in Carnegie Hall. He played, of course, every year at least a couple of times and sometimes more. And, from the age of thirteen or so, I went to practically every concert he played in New York. When I was fifteen, I guess 1965, and Vladimir Horowitz came back to the stage. You know, for me it was as though someone who came back from the dead, in fact, because the last time he played a concert was in New York when I was still in the Ukraine, and I was two years old or three years old. So, it was literally as though Rachmaninoff had come back to play. That was an amazing experience. I was one of the original one hundred people on line who were outside of Carnegie Hall for the entire weekend from Friday night to Monday morning to buy tickets.
KAPLAN: Well let’s explore the notion of talent a bit further because in an interview you once said that for musicians at least, talent was over-rated as a factor in success. You said that during Isaac Stern’s childhood there were probably 50 Isaac Stern’s running around. The difference was in Isaac’s case, determination and plain hard work. So clarify this for me with a number: out of 100%, what portion would be talent?
AX: Oh, gosh, I’d hate to, I’d hate to be pinned down. But I would venture to say it’s, it’s less than half.
KAPLAN: Less than half.
AX: Less than half, for me.
KAPLAN: That’s fascinating. All right, then, let’s turn to your fascinating list of music you plan to play today, and tell me about your first selection.
AX: The first piece is the first piece I really got to hear several times because my dad worked as a speech coach at the Lviv Opera in the Ukraine where I was born, and at the age of four he would take me to work with him. And the piece that the opera was working on at the time was Eugene Onegin of Tchaikovsky. So, not only was that the first piece that I got to know, but it’s remained, it’s a silly thing to say in a way, but it’s remained my favorite piece. It’s a piece that I never, never fail to be completely destroyed by. The first time that I heard the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa was conducting and did a concert performance of Eugene Onegin at Carnegie Hall. A totally unforgettable evening for me, maybe the greatest evening I spent in Carnegie Hall.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden under the baton of Sir George Solti, the first selection and one of the first musical memories of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, pianist Emanuel Ax. Now your official biography describes you as “known for your poetic temperament”. Yet someone who has observed your career over a long period of time told me recently, quote he said, “Manny (as your nickname is known) is a relatively introspective pianist. But over the years this has changed and he now plays in a much bigger style both in conception and in sound.” Does that ring true to you?
AX: I hope it’s true. But I think a lot of that has to do with the way one feels about being on stage.
KAPLAN: Well, has that changed over time?
AX: Yeah. It’s changed enormously.
KAPLAN: Well, talk about that.
AX: I think there is incredible pressure on young people to do things absolutely correctly. First of all, not to play wrong notes; second of all, not to overstep bounds. I think we’re a little bit – maybe it’s the culture we’ve been in for the past fifty years or sixty years, but I think that’s been true of pianistic culture. It’s not a question of good or bad. That’s not a criticism. It’s just that that’s what I think has kind of happened. We’ve gone away from the time of, obviously someone like Liszt, who apparently played Beethoven the way it was printed the first time he looked at the music, but then added notes every other time. And probably very good notes, too, because he was, I am sure, an incredible performer of other people’s music. But I think just being on stage over the years has taught me that the most important thing is finding a connection between the music, the audience, and myself. And that’s more important than any kind of correctness, perfection, anything like that. That’s really far more important. So, I hope that I’ve been able to get rid of some of my feelings of nervousness before every concert and some of my sort of being careful to the point of inhibition and therefore just become a better performer.
KAPLAN: That’s a very interesting way to put it.
AX: At least I hope that’s true. But you know, that’s something that I’m still working on all the time.
KAPLAN: Well, let’s see how this shows up in your music because when I asked you to make a list of music to play today, I did ask you to include two works where you are performing. So we have a chance now to hear you talk about all this what you’re talking about abstractly, a little more specific because you brought some Chopin for us. So tell us about this piece.
AX: Well, you know, all pianists feel that Chopin is a special composer. He defines the piano for many people, and I don’t know any pianist that doesn’t want to play Chopin and practice it all his life. I had the chance to do something a little bit unusual. I had the chance to do some recording on a period piano, on an Erard from 1851 which would have been a piano that Chopin didn’t quite use because he died a couple of years earlier, but he would have played a piano very similar to this. So the piece that we’re going to listen to is the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Opus 22, or at least a portion of it. And the Andante Spianato is the four-minute solo introduction and then the orchestra comes in with a fairly sketchy accompaniment, but of course absolutely perfect for the fact that the piano is going to be the major protagonist in everything. I think it’s a sensational work, incredibly beautiful, incredibly inventive. I can’t imagine actually a more inventive composer. I think he and Debussy were perhaps the most outrageously innovative people in the history of music because it comes from nowhere. You hear this music, and it’s a little kid, eighteen years old from Poland, who arrives in Vienna with this music, and there’s been nothing like it before. And I’m sure people went absolutely crazy, the way Schumann did. Schumann’s review of Chopin’s first concert that he was able to hear began with the words, “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” And he called it right.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante performed by my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music”, pianist Emanuel Ax, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment led by Sir Charles Mackerras. When we return, we’ll talk with Emanuel Ax about which of today’s composers will endure.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music”, pianist Emanuel Ax. Now you are a performer who has championed new music, but mostly listener-friendly works. So I gather that you are not too keen on the more difficult atonal works.
AX: No, I am, actually! As a matter of fact, I’m one of the, I guess I’m a great fan of Schoenberg in all his guises, everything from Transfigured Night which everybody loves. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t, all the way through to the Orchestral Variations and the Piano Concerto which I’m also crazy about, and the Concerto I’ve played quite a lot. But I can see where that’s an acquired taste in the sense that I think, with Schoenberg, very often it takes a certain immersion in the music. I think the Piano Concerto, for me, is a really good example. I really wanted to learn that piece just because I wanted to learn it. So, I didn’t know it almost at all when I started working on it. The more I worked on it, the more interesting and beautiful it got to me. And after a while it all sounded absolutely melodic and straightforward, a little bit like Brahms, you know?
KAPLAN: You’re kidding me.
AX: Well, for me. I’m just saying that, you know, after a certain familiarity I think that can happen.
KAPLAN: Let me change the question slightly to try to narrow it down to another way of looking at this. Who among the composers who are writing today do you believe will endure?
AX: Very tough question and one that I certainly can’t answer with any kind of certainty! But if I were to guess, I would guess of the Americans definitely Chris Rouse, definitely Steve Reich, most probably Elliott Carter, and for me, definitely John Adams.
KAPLAN: I see John Adams is on your list today, so why don’t we migrate right over to him and talk about John Adams a bit and also your selection.
AX: John was the person through whom I became fascinated with new music. I met him about thirty years ago, I think it was about thirty years ago, maybe twenty-seven, something like that, in St. Louis. He was working with Leonard Slatkin on a chamber concert and they were doing a piece of his called Shaker Loops. And I couldn’t believe how incredibly beautiful, completely comprehensible, and yet, very, very complicated, very complex and interesting the piece sounded to me. I was bowled over by this, that my God, this is phenomenal! And I was playing with Lenny. I was doing a Beethoven concerto with the Symphony that week and I got to know John. We went out for a few meals together. He’s a person who, by the way, knows everything about everything. He’s at least as smart as his music sounds! And I think Shaker Loops, even it’s an early piece, very early piece of his, but I think it’s a wonderful kind of entrance into John’s world. And I believe he’s someone who is going to be heard one hundred years from now.
KAPLAN: “A Final Shaking”, the last movement of John Adams’ Shaker Loops, performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by the composer himself, a selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the pianist Emanuel Ax. Now you have commissioned works by John Adams and other composers. What is it like to perform a work with the composer lurking around?
AX: Depends which composer. Some of them leave everybody alone and you only talk to them afterwards, or, you know, during breaks and things. And some are very much part of the rehearsal process.
KAPLAN: Is that bearable?
AX: Sometimes it’s very helpful; sometimes it’s not so helpful. It depends very, very much on – well, if it’s a piece with orchestra, it depends very much on how efficiently the conductor can run a rehearsal and how well the personalities mesh. I think it’s mostly a personal issue, not a musical issue.
KAPLAN: You know, we’ve been talking about the music you love and the music you play. Let’s talk about music that you don’t play. Now, I know because we’ve discussed this privately before, you don’t play Rachmaninoff, not because you don’t love his music, but you said, because?
AX: I’m just not good at it.
KAPLAN: But you said something else.
AX: Oh, you mean about the size of hands.
AX: It’s actually, I think that’s part of it. But I think part of it is, I used to play the Second Concerto quite a lot when I was a kid, well, when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty. And actually even got to play it later on with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and other orchestras. I loved playing it. I don’t think I ever quite was comfortable enough with the kind of demands he makes, to be totally free and at ease with that composer. I adore his music, you know, and I listened, of course I’ve heard many incredible performances.
KAPLAN: I mean, do you feel you’ve missed out because you don’t perform it?
AX: Well, I wouldn’t say missed out. One of the nice things about being a pianist is that there is endless great music for the piano. So, you’re never without stuff that you can play and stuff that you can practice. That’s fine.
KAPLAN: Are there any other mainstream composers whose music you just don’t feel connected to, so you don’t play it?
AX: Prokofiev. Another composer whose music I love, and that I’ve heard many great performances of, but I just don’t feel that I’m the pianist for that at all. Shostakovich. A lot of Russian music, which I do love very, very deeply. The Tchaikovsky Concerto. I’ve never played the Tchaikovsky B-flat Minor Concerto.
KAPLAN: Oh, my goodness!
AX: That’s a piece I adore. That’s a fabulous work but I just don’t play it.
KAPLAN: Well, in a way, you know, it’s not completely unusual. When Glenn Dicterow was on this show, Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, of course you know, he mentions several pieces that he won’t play because he feels they are “owned” by either Heifetz or Kreisler. They play them so well that no one will ever play them as well. Do you have any of those?
AX: Well, I think to some degree it depends what you heard when you were young. When I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, you could buy a recording of Horowitz playing the Rachmaninoff Third with Fritz Reiner and the RCA Victor Symphony. And that performance is so overwhelming, to me it’s so completely the piece that I always felt if I could, that’s exactly the way I’d like to play it. And if you feel that way, you really shy away from the work. For me, with Beethoven or Brahms, as great as the performances were that I heard, you can always say, well, but you could also do it this way, or you could also do it that way, or there were other possibilities. With this piece, for example, I just didn’t see other possibilities.
KAPLAN: Well I suspect you wouldn’t see possibilities with another pianist who is featured on the next section of our show which we call the “wildcard” where, as you know, you have a chance to pick music that’s neither classical, not opera. It can be anything: rock, jazz. So tell us what you brought us today.
AX: I definitely will never play this. I will say that I’ve done quite a lot of work with Andre Previn, who, as you know, is not only a great conductor, but is a great, great pianist, especially great jazz pianist. And I was always so bowled over by the stuff he did just off the cuff, in jazz, that I begged him once to show me a little bit of what happens, and he tried for a while, you know, he said look, do this, do this, do this and after about thirty minutes, he kind of said, “you know, just stick to what you do.” I just have no gift for it, but we’re going to hear a great jazz pianist that I listen to all the time. I have my iPod and what I have on the iPod is, above all, I’ve got five CDs of Oscar Peterson. And one of them is called “Take the ‘A’ Train”.
KAPLAN: Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”, performed by the Oscar Peterson Trio, the “wildcard” selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, pianist Emanuel Ax. When we return, we’ll be discussing concert etiquette and ask Emanuel Ax how he feels about the audience clapping between movements.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music”, pianist Emanuel Ax. Let’s turn to your life as a performer. How many concerts a year do you actually do?
AX: I’ve been doing about one hundred. And now that I’m getting old, I’ll probably do a little bit less.
KAPLAN: And how many different cities will you go to in a year?
AX: Oh, maybe forty or fifty, something like that.
KAPLAN: Is it a life that you love beyond the music? Because many singers have told me that they often find the performing wonderful, but the life not so wonderful – away from the family, alone, room service, nervous all the time.
AX: Well, all those things certainly come into play. And when our kids were little it was hard. And I did a lot of traveling because I didn’t want to be away for too long, so I would always go back and forth. For twenty years I didn’t spend a Sunday night in Los Angeles. I was always on the red-eye back home. Now that the kids are gone and couldn’t care less about where I am, it’s a lot easier in that sense. I don’t have to run back. The nerves are very, very hard. I always get nervous before I play and it’s just part and parcel of the profession, I think, at least for me. I envy people who don’t get that nervous, but I still do.
KAPLAN: Well let’s turn to the question of concert etiquette. How do you feel about the audience clapping between movements?
AX: Well, I’ve been saying for many, many years now, that the whole convention of not clapping between movements has to go; it’s got to go out the window. There are very few pieces that were meant to be played that way in the repertoire that I know. Certainly nothing of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, any of these people, was meant to be played without applause between movements. The composer writes the piece that way, my goodness. How can you conceive, actually, if you’re giving way to how you feel about the music, how can you conceive of hearing the Emperor Concerto, getting to the end of the first movement and not applauding? It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s denying what you want to do. I think the idea of telling people when to applaud, there is something wrong with that.
KAPLAN: Well, you know, in life we tell people what to do about everything that makes no sense: how to hold your knife and fork, how to say please and thank you; these are just traditions.
AX: Yes, but some traditions are good; some traditions are not so good. And the knife and fork, too, I mean, to say which way do you hold the fork I think is also a little bit wrong.
KAPLAN: I don’t want to get into that, my children may be listening.
AX: There are many, many ways to do it.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, we’ve talked about all these approaches to music, now let’s listen to some music, and we now come to the second piece I asked you to bring today, so tell us about this one.
AX: Well, this is the Brahms B-flat Piano Concerto, and, well, much as Eugene Onegin is my favorite piece, I think the Brahms B-flat may be my favorite piano piece. It’s something that I grew up with from the time I was thirteen, when we used to have LPs. I had a Rubinstein recording of it and I actually wore out two copies. Remember when the stylus was on, the kids wouldn’t know now of course, but they did used to wear out because you had a needle. So I owned at one time three copies of this same record because I wore out two of them. It’s a piece that contains everything. It’s an enormous piece; it’s about fifty minutes long. And the beginning horn solo is incredibly beautiful, and it’s also one of the most terrifying things for a pianist to hear because about twenty seconds after this beautiful horn solo, the piano launches into a cadenza which is so impossible as to defy the imagination. So, you’re always battling this middle ground between exhilaration and pleasure and terror because the whole piece is actually full of these outrageous demands on the pianist. And when you get through a piece like this, there’s really a sense of accomplishment. Then you feel good, you know?
KAPLAN: The opening Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Bernard Haitink and as soloist, my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the pianist Emanuel Ax. Now with a concerto you often will have three or four performances in a row with a little bit of a break in-between. But, in your experience, is there one which is most likely to turn out to be the best?
AX: Sometimes the first night’s very exciting because you’re very up and you’re very nervous. The second night can sometimes be a bit of a letdown because you’ve been so nervous and it’s hard to come back the very next day and just repeat it. So, sometimes the best one turns out to be the third one. I think performing is pretty much like any other human activity; you can’t predict, you know, it’s like a football game.
KAPLAN: Well, now that you mention sports, it brings me to something which has a sports metaphor. As I was listening to you talking, it occurred to me, because performers are their own worst critics. And so when you evaluate how you have done, it’s obviously going to be quite different from the critics, from the audience. You will hear things, you will remember the little notes you didn’t hit just right, and all that. But at the end of the day, and I know you’re reluctant to do this sort of thing, but I wanted to press you because it reveals something about you. Using a baseball metaphor, you like sports, what percentage of your concerts would you regard as home runs? Where, at the end of the day, you’re really, really quite satisfied with it. By way of perspective, when Valery Gergiev was on the show, he said if artists were honest, they would admit that only a very small portion of what they do is really good. Now I don’t mean to set you up with that as a standard, but it’s something we’ve talked about on this show.
AX: I would say in terms of feeling really, really good, about an entire performance, one or two a year.
KAPLAN: One or two a year of one hundred.
AX: But then you really feel very good; those are very special. Yeah, what I would say is that I spend a lot of time practicing. I practice several hours every day. I don’t skip very many days, including Sundays. And one of the reasons I practice all that time is so that when I’m not feeling tip-top, or when things are not flexible, or when sometimes I’m just not at my peak for whatever reason, that the level remains a decent one. So, what I’d rather say is that I would like to feel that there are not many performances in a year which are really terrible.
KAPLAN: You keep talking about practicing to get better. I mean, how much better can you be?
AX: It’s limitless. I can’t begin to answer that, because if I were – if you want to talk in terms of percentages, I feel like I’m about twenty percent on the way to being a complete pianist. And unfortunately, what happens is that you get to a certain point where physically the returns become diminishing returns. It’s just part of life, you know. And I feel like I only have a few years left to get better. So, in a way, it’s a very frustrating profession because you feel like you have so far to go, but you’re never going to get there. You’re going to be on the way down before you ever get to the top.
KAPLAN: Well, I’m sure our listeners would agree with me, this is the kind of false modesty at its best, when you talk about twenty percent!
AX: You know, forget about percentage. We were traveling back from the Berkshires the other day. I put on a CD of one of my favorite pianists of all time, Gilels, playing a Beethoven sonata. Believe me, you just feel very small compared to this kind of thing. There are always things to strive for. It’s very easy.
KAPLAN: Now you mentioned you’re getting older and as some of your colleagues have done is they’ve gotten a little bit older. I’m thinking of Daniel Barenboim or Christoph Eshenbach or Vladimir Ashkenazy. You know what I’m about to say, they have become conductors. Have you ever thought about that?
AX: I’ve thought about it a lot, in the negative. I’m never going to be a conductor. Never, ever!
KAPLAN: All right. In that case, let’s go to your final selection then.
AX: Right, where you need a conductor really desperately! And that’s The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. I think it’s just one of the most terrifying and exciting pieces still. And it’s still one of the most revolutionary, exciting, and just hair-raising pieces ever written. I used to hear it regularly in concert. I used to love hearing it, and then, I was of course aware that there was a version for piano with four hands that Stravinsky did. But last year, about a year and a half ago, I did a tour with my friend Fima [Yefim] Bronfman. We did concerts together, two-piano concerts together. And we had I think fourteen concerts in a row and we finished the program with The Rite of Spring for four hands. And so I got to know the piece very, very well, just by practicing it, working on it. The more I got to know it, the more hair-raising and terrifying it became. So, I’m a total Stravinsky fan now. I think he’s right up there in the pantheon of the real greats, you know. We can put him with the three Bs, we have to add the three Bs and an S, maybe. So I’m just thrilled to have a chance to hear that piece anytime.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with the New York Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta, the final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, pianist Emanuel Ax. All right, we’ve covered music from many angles today and talked about you as a performer. Let’s talk about you as a listener, the music you just put on for enjoyment. You mentioned before that you always have your iPod with you, so what’s in there at the moment?
AX: Well, as I said, a lot of Oscar Peterson. I’ve got quite a bit of Frank Sinatra on there because I think he’s an incredible, incredible artist. You could learn a lot about rubato from listening to Frank Sinatra. I’ve got songs of Rinaldo Hahn with Susan Graham singing -- late 19th century French fluff which is amazing and wonderful. I’ve got the Dave Matthews Band because of my daughter.
KAPLAN: It’s a favorite of my daughter, too, one of my daughters.
AX: She loves the Dave Matthews band and she got me involved too. What else do I have? I have lots more opera.
KAPLAN: Do you have any music there that you turn to if you’re not in the most ebullient mood, you’ve had a bad day and you want something for solace?
AX: Oh, I don’t know. I’d probably listen to Schubert quintets, C major String Quintet. Maybe the Brahms C Minor Piano Trio, things like that. But maybe I just listen to Rachmaninoff and get excited by good piano playing!
KAPLAN: All right. Well, we’re coming to the end of the show, and we come to a portion of the show that’s one of my favorites. I’ve even given it a title called “Fantasyland.” And everybody has to give a true confession about their fantasies, their musical fantasies.
AX: Oh, it’s strictly musical!
KAPLAN: Now, in your case, we’ve already ruled out being a conductor and so I would ask you that if you could be a star in any other aspect of music than the piano, and it wouldn’t be a conductor, I understand. A composer, a tenor, a bass, a french horn player?
AX: It’s easy. A tenor.
KAPLAN: A tenor.
AX: There’s nothing like the human voice and there’s nothing like a high male voice – I guess if you’re a male! If I were picking a musical dream idea, I’d be Otello, yeah. That would be my dream thing. But I could dream of being a conductor very easily. If I dreamt of being a conductor I would dream of conducting two pieces: Eugene Onegin and the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony.
KAPLAN: All right. Emanuel Ax, you’ve been a wonderful guest, taken us through your life in music, about music, contemporary music, the whole horizon. Thank you much for appearing today and we wish you great success on this next tour you’re on and when you come back to the New York Philharmonic later next year.
AX: Thank you so much. It’s been fun.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”