Seven-time Grammy-winning pianist Emanuel Ax joins us on September 21 and 22 to open the season with Brahms’ exquisite Second Piano Concerto. We spoke with him about the challenges and joys of this extremely difficult piece, and about his 44-year relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra.
When you see that your next concert venue is in Minnesota, what do you think about?
Minnesota was one of the first places I ever played with a major orchestra—at Northrop Auditorium and with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (in 1974 and 1977). It was very exciting for me, a great thrill. I’ve always loved both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and I’m just excited about coming back.
The program from one of Emanuel Ax's first performances with the Minnesota Orchestra
How have you grown as a musician since those early performances?
Well, I don’t have the slightest idea, to be honest. I keep practicing, hard. But I keep feeling that I have so much more to learn, and that hasn’t changed at all. I hope I’m playing more intelligently and communicating better than I did then. But I can’t really say; that’s more of a question for people who come to the concert.
What are you looking forward to about the upcoming Minnesota Orchestra concerts?
I haven’t been to Minnesota since I played with the Orchestra’s musicians during the lockout. So, I’m glad that people are back and working and it’s all good news. I’m very excited to see Osmo Vänskä again and I’m very excited to be with the Orchestra, so I’m anticipating it with a lot of pleasure. And of course I’ll be nervous. I hope I play well.
How do you stay at the top of your game?
I think all pianists are working hard and working ahead because we have a lot of notes to play, so I’m always trying to do that and be ready when the concert comes. And with all of the traveling that I do, the first thing my management team does is line up practice time at each place when I arrive. I plan my days around that. It’s really the most well-planned part of my life!
What is the greatest challenge about Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto?
The challenge is simply that it is very, very difficult. It’s hard physically. It’s hard mentally. It’s long. It’s very involved and like a piece of big chamber music. You have to be very connected to everything else that is going on onstage.
What is your greatest joy about the piece?
Brahms’ Second Concerto is so evocative and so wonderful and so deep that it’s always a pleasure and a thrill to work on it…but scary! I first performed this piece almost 40 years ago. The Brahms concertos have been part of my life for a very long time.
This season, the Minnesota Orchestra is highlighting American composers. How would you describe American orchestral music?
Well I think that’s very hard to answer. I think there is an unmistakable flavor of American music that you hear in composers like Bernstein, Copland, Roy Harris and others from that era, a kind of American sound that is very open, very frank, very welcoming and very hopeful. But I think that now the world of composition is so international that it’s difficult to characterize by nationality. People from America go to Vienna to study. People from Vienna come to New York. People from the Far East go all over the world. There are teachers of all nationalities working everywhere. So, I think in that sense, the world of music has become very international.
What are some of your latest projects?
Recently, I’ve been performing the Brahms trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos, and that’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing. Yo-Yo and I have been playing together in one thing or another for over 40 years now. Being onstage with him is one of the absolute greatest things that happened in my life. I’m grateful to whatever powers made it possible. And we both fell in love with Leonidas, so it’s been really fun over the last couple of years.
And I’ve learned a couple of new pieces that I like a lot. One in particular that I performed last year is by a Viennese composer named HK Gruber.
Otherwise, one of the most important things in my life is that we have grandchildren. They are three-and-a-half year old twins, and we’re very blessed. I’ll see them this coming weekend. We haven’t gotten them much into music yet, but I’m hoping to learn more songs that they can sing along to, so I’m going to be working on that in the next bit.