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Ax, Gilbert and Philharmonic winningly introduce new Gruber concerto

BY DAVID WRIGHT
NEW YORK CLASSICAL REVIEW
JANUARY 6, 2017
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To hear Emanuel Ax’s performance of HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto Thursday night with the New York Philharmonic, one might imagine he’d been playing the piece his whole life, it sounded so seasoned and “lived in.”

It was enough to make one open the program again and stare in wonder at the words, “World Premiere.”

Although the pianist was playing with a score open on the piano, neither his performance, nor that of the orchestra under music director Alan Gilbert, ever suggested a rocky first reading. Instead, Gruber’s lively, attractive piece—an international co-commission by the Philharmonic and three other orchestras–spoke directly to the audience in accents jazzy one moment and Romantic the next. The concerto was welcomed into the world with a warm ovation at the end.

Now in his 70s, the Austrian composer first came on the scene as something of a bad boy of the age of serialism, introducing retro elements in his scores, especially the style of cabaret, long before it became fashionable. In addition to composing, he has made a career of vocal performance in the speech-singing style of a cabaret M.C.

James M. Keller’s Philharmonic program notes made much of all this, and to reinforce the point Gilbert prefaced the new 20-minute concerto with the snide yet silky sounds of Kurt Weill’s music for The Threepenny Opera, arranged for woodwinds by the composer.

At the concerto’s opening, a jaunty, sarcastic little tune for muted trumpet seemed to promise more of the same. But the concerto ethos quickly engulfed the cabaret one, and Weill receded, to be replaced by glittering, Gershwin-like piano syncopations and lush orchestral sonorities à la Rachmaninoff.

Gruber’s harmonic adventurousness may have been very contemporary, but it was wearing comfortable clothes from a century ago. As somebody wrote back then, “But now, God knows, anything goes,” and it went just fine for Ax, Gilbert and the Philharmonic on Thursday night.

The performers’ ability to inhabit and project every twist and turn of this one-movement, variations-style concerto was what really made the sale with the audience, whose response went far beyond the respectful applause usually accorded new pieces.

To lead off the concert, a woodwind ensemble with rhythm section (piano, timpani, and other percussion) evoked a whole era with the ineffably dark lyricism and dance rhythms of Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music).

At the outset, Gilbert and his players captured the alienated, world-weary character of the familiar tunes from the Brecht-Weill classic. Except for the thumping, pompous Overture, the conductor signaled for a light touch throughout, and sometimes got it. But for some reason the clear-eyed, rhythmically precise performance went a little mushy and pulled its punches in the last few numbers.

No such problem with the first movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, which, despite sharing the week’s bill with a challenging premiere, showed no signs of under-rehearsal. Perhaps the work’s comparative unfamiliarity—this was its first Philharmonic performance in 22 years—made it too a premiere of sorts, and put the musicians on their mettle. Whatever the reason, the 18-year-old composer’s mastery of, and impatience with, classical symphonic form came through in vivid, transparent colors.

Gilbert elected, however, to inflect the simple, Magic Flute-style tune of the Andante rather heavily, leaving himself little room to develop more expression in the ensuing variations. A touch of Haydn-like fastidiousness, at least at the outset, would have been more effective.

The brusque Menuetto—really a Beethovenian scherzo—managed to be emphatic without heaviness. The trio’s charming oboe solo was crowded by the horns, which, here as in the Andante, proved hard to restrain when their part wasn’t featured.

All was in balance, however, for the closing Presto vivace, a confection of skittering scales and Schubert’s favorite rat-a-tat rhythm. Gilbert and the orchestra didn’t miss a turn on their way to a fizzy finish for a program that may have looked a little arcane on paper, but proved full of delights in performance.

Conductor Afkham strikes sparks with CSO, Ax in impressive debut

By Lawrence A. Johnson
Chicago Classical Review
21 October 2016

The 2016-17 season will see five young conductors make their Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts.

One can also–kind of sort of–add David Afkham to that list for an even six. Though he has led the orchestra twice previously in family and appreciation events, Thursday night’s program of Beethoven and Shostakovich marked Afkham’s CSO subscription bow.

And a very impressive debut it was indeed. Currently music director of the Spanish National Orchestra, the German conductor led Thursday’s concert with a confidence and seasoned maturity beyond his 33 years. Tall and energetic, he elicited full-bodied, vibrant playing from the orchestra and consistently illuminated details in the music without ever sounding pedantic or sacrificing momentum.

The evening led off with Emanuel Ax as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the first installment of this season’s series of the composer’s complete keyboard concertos. Ax has been performing Beethoven widely in recent seasons, and just this past March played the Fourth Concerto under Michael Tilson Thomas with the CSO. (He has recorded his second complete Beethoven cycle with the same conductor and the San Francisco Symphony.)

The veteran pianist and the young conductor seemed to strike sparks, for Ax’s performance of Beethoven’s First Concerto gave us his finest CSO stand of recent seasons.

From the rich, firmly contoured introduction Afkham queued up for his soloist, Ax was fully in the Beethoven zone. The pianist threw the music off with a light, playful touch apt for this early work, his nimble dynamic marking and joie de vivre fully in synch with the score’s youthful high spirits. For once, Beethoven’s extended cadenza for the first movement didn’t feel overlong and indulgent, as Ax’s sparking rendition made it seem fresh and wholly delightful.

The soloist’s singing, expressive line in the Largo had a poised, unsentimental expression, nicely backed by John Bruce Yeh’s clarinet playing. There was a wonderful give-and-take spontaneity in the rollicking finale that was infectious, the soloist and conductor echoing each other’s steep dynamic drops, batting the main theme back and forth, and closing in an exhilarating coda.

Ax was clearly taken with his young podium colleague, immediately embracing Afkham at the thunderous ovation. Four curtain calls brought the pianist back out for a limpid and poetic solo encore of Schumann’s “Des Abends” from his Op. 42 Fantasiestücke.

The evening moved from youthful optimism to surmounted tragedy with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.

Written in a burst of inspiration following the death of Stalin in 1953, it’s not too hard to sense the composer’s mixed feelings in his Tenth Symphony. Cast on a vast 55-minute canvas, the score proceeds from the epic violent upheaval of the long opening movement to a portrait of the murderous Soviet dictator, and closes in confidence and optimism.

From the taut opening statement of cellos and basses, it was clear that Afkham was in full command of this epic, challenging work. Throughout the conductor drew playing of astounding power as well as uncommon subtlety, while keeping strong narrative flow.

The long opening movement was charted with supreme concentration by Afkham with superb solo contributions from clarinetist Stephen Williamson and bassoonist Keith Buncke painting the lonely, desolate atmosphere. The movement’s grinding climax was shattering in its massive sonic impact with Cynthia Yeh’s ballistic snare drum likely heard out on Michigan Avenue.

The second movement, said to be a musical portrait of Stalin, was genuinely terrifying in its relentless implacable fury. The ensuing Allegretto is always tricky to pull off, but Afkham and the musicians made its progress seem inevitable, moving from bleak rumination to rays of solace and questioning horn passages, quite beautifully played by Daniel Gingrich.

The finale sealed the performance as the cockerel-like clarinet motif announced a new day and the music stirred from introspective darkness to renewed energy, Shostakovich’s musical motif having its final brassy say in a burst of exuberance at the coda.

The playing of the orchestra was at its considerable finest across all sections with especially notable wind and percussion contributions. David Afkham showed himself to be an exciting and uncommonly thoughtful young conductor, and has earned an invitation back to Orchestra Hall.

Review: Emanuel Ax, Charles Dutoit, Boston Symphony Orchestra in fine form at Tanglewood

By Ken Ross

MassLive.com

13 August 2016

LENOX – Where was pianist Emanuel Ax on Friday night at Tanglewood when the audience was giving him and the Boston Symphony Orchestra a standing ovation?

You could see Ax, just off stage.

But as the crowd was urging him to come back out for another bow, Ax was doing some coaxing of his own. He was waving his arms and waiting to come back on stage until he was joined by conductor Charles Dutoit.

That little moment says a lot about Ax. It also would probably come as no surprise to Ax’s legions of devoted fans, some of whom wore T-shirts Friday that said, “Manny Ax ‘Maniax’.”

In a profession filled with prima donnas, Ax just might be one of the most laid back, down-to-earth, genuinely-nice musicians. Talk to people who know Ax and all of them talk glowingly about him. Ax could have easily returned to the stage on his own Friday to bask in the glow of thunderous applause. But he seemed more concerned with sharing the spotlight with Dutoit and the entire BSO.

So while Ax might be too modest to say so himself, let me clearly state that Ax definitely deserves to be considered one of the world’s greatest pianists. I have heard Ax perform several times – with the BSO, with star-studded chamber groups as well as with Ax’s longtime-friend Yo Yo Ma several times, including last summer, when they delivered a dazzling performance of Beethoven’s cello and piano sonatas. And every single time, I am always amazed by Ax’s ability to play each piece so beautifully, so lovingly.

Friday night was no exception. Right from the very first note, Ax performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto 22 in E Flat with a lighter-than-air touch. He vividly brought Mozart’s lively, precise music to life. He also amazingly played the music so softly at times and yet none of the notes were overpowered by the orchestra. How he’s able to play softly and loudly at the same time remains a mystery. However, I suspect it has something to do with the way Ax’s fingers caress the keyboard and gently produce one sparkling sound after another.

Ax’s performance Friday night was made even better by Dutoit, this year’s Koussevitzky Artist at Tanglewood. I barely noticed Dutoit conducting during Ax’s brilliant performance, which is what a great conductor should do – let the musicians shine. Far too often, far too many conductors flail their arms around like they’re trying to wave down a passing car while being chased by a chainsaw-wielding lunatic.

Dutoit takes a different approach. The stylish, suave conductor always brings an understated elegance to the podium. He rarely wears a tie or a full tuxedo. The times I’ve seen him conduct, he’s often wearing a white tuxedo jacket, a black shirt and black pants. On Friday, Dutoit didn’t have a jacket on. The man in black simply wore a button-down shirt and dress pants.

Throughout Friday’s concert, Dutoit moved gracefully like a dancer as he conducted the orchestra, his body often swaying slightly in time to the music. Dutoit’s most animated movements were reserved for his left hand, the one not wielding the baton. Often, his left hand moved gracefully, like an artist painting the notes in the air.

Other times, Dutoit’s hands became a little more animated during certain sections Friday night. But he never did so during the most moving, tender passages in Mozart’s piano concerto. There, Dutoit simply stepped back and let the BSO and Ax bask in the spotlight.

Mozart’s concerto was the second piece on the program, which began with Otto Nicolai’s overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Strangely, the lights were kept on during this short piece, taking away a little from the romantic ambiance of night concerts at Tanglewood. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has a charming, swashbuckling flair. Listening to the piece, I half expected to see Errol Flynn swinging onto the stage, brandishing a foil.

After the Mozart concerto and a brief intermission, the BSO and Dutoit brought out the best in two beloved, classical music works – Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” and Mauice Ravel’s “Bolero.”

The orchestra sounded superb Friday performing “La Mer.” They perfectly captured the spirit of this luxurious music inspired by the ocean, especially the grand, sweeping sections that bring to mind waves crashing against the rocks or perhaps a three-masted schooner bursting through a large swell at sea.

Ravel’s instantly-recognizable “Bolero” never fails to delight audiences. On Friday, I even observed a few people dancing on the lawn just in back of The Shed as the orchestra played Ravel’s driving, seductive music. Maybe that’s because the music was originally written for a ballet.

On stage, Dutoit wiggled his hips a few times as well during “Bolero,” especially when several different instruments took turns playing the distinct, sinuous solo that drifts throughout the piece. But Dutoit didn’t go overboard. Like everything else he, Ax and the orchestra did Friday night, they did it with understated elegance and flair.

Review: Emanuel Ax Weathers Beethoven’s Emotional Storms at Carnegie Hall

By

The New York Times

28 April 2016

Describing a pianist’s performance as unhinged might seem like an unlikely compliment. But the adjective could be applied in the most flattering terms to Emanuel Ax’s engrossing interpretation of Beethoven’s “Pathétique”Sonata on Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall.

The sonata was included on an all-Beethoven lineup, with two popular sonatas bookending three lesser-known pieces. Mr. Ax brought demonic power to the “Pathétique,” which opened the program. In the opening section, he revealed with particularly vivid colors the contrast between crashing low chords and the yearning melody in the upper register. His clarity of line was admirable in the tumultuous thickets of the first movement; the ethereal Adagio unfolded with a gorgeous simplicity; and he imbued the third-movement Rondo with seething tension.

After the tumult of the “Pathétique,” Mr. Ax offered a lighthearted contrast, a delightful and delicately shaded interpretation of the Six Variations on an Original Theme in F (Op. 34). Beethoven wrote the “Pathétique” during what historians have recognized as his early period, when he was already challenging the precedent of Viennese Classicism established by composers like Mozart and Haydn. He continued to break new ground in his middle period, when he composed the “Appassionata” Sonata. Mr. Ax brought passion and power in admirable measure to his performance, which concluded the program on a stormy note.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 16 in G is perhaps the least often programmed work of his Opus 31 set, which includes the famous “Tempest” Sonata. It received an insightful and elegant performance here. Mr. Ax played the runs in the first movement with sparkling energy; the trills of the Adagio unfolded with leisurely grace, and the concluding Rondo with both strength and charm.

The second half of the program included an unfamiliar short bonbon: thePolonaise in C (Op. 89), which Beethoven wrote in 1814 for festivities at theCongress of Vienna and dedicated to a visiting czarina. After all the dramatic Beethovenian moods, Mr. Ax offered a gentle encore: an introverted rendition of Schubert’s “Der Müller und der Bach,” in Liszt’s transcription.

Cleveland Orchestra enjoys artistic, financial success on gala evening with Emanuel Ax (review)

By Zachary Lewis

Cleveland.com

3 October 2016

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Consider the Cleveland Orchestra’s American deficit reduced. After a heavily American subscription season opener, the group Saturday followed up with a gala stocked with even more of the same.

What an invigorating twist it was. No offense to Beethoven, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was also on the program, but Harbison, Copland, and Bernstein were nothing if not welcome and overdue breaths of fresh air on a night that generated $1.1 million for the orchestra’s educational initiatives.

Start with Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra,” a short dance sequence from a later opera. True to its name, the score saw the orchestra in big band mode, belting out a catchy, lilting tune with saxophone, trumpets, and drum-set. Even director Franz Welser-Most seemed to enjoy the frolic in an exotic musical language.

Conductor and orchestra also seemed fully attuned to Copland’s Suite from “Billy the Kid.” Everywhere in the score, from its evocations of wide-open landscapes to the Mexican Dance and percussive gun battle scenes, both parties delivered vigorous, fully-engaged performances. Particularly savory was the expressive solo by principal trumpet Michael Sachs in “Prairie Night (Card Game).”

Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture, by contrast, is a perennial Cleveland favorite, and reappeared Saturday as an encore. That this orchestra can do just about anything was clear from a blazing, truly virtuoso performance.

Noteworthy as the musical selections were, the star of the night was pianist Emanuel Ax, who joined the orchestra for a sparkling account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. A work Ax and Welser-Most have surely played 1,000 times received Saturday at Severance Hall another sweet, insightful reading.

This one stood out for its contrast, for its gentle tug-of-war between playful or fiery zeal and probing, supple elegance. Muscle and effervescence, along with animated support by the orchestra, defined the Allegro and Rondo, while in the Adagio, Ax spun out his tender lines with wondrous, bell-like clarity.

More of the latter was also what made his encore a treat. Coming from Ax, “In the Evening” from Schumann’s “Fantasy Pieces” Op. 12 served as the perfect nightcap, a fond, tender farewell.

Concert Review: Emanuel Ax and Milwaukee Symphony

By Elaine Schmidt

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

23 September 2016

Friday’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert was a feast of soulful music making.

The orchestra, playing under the baton of Music Director Edo de Waart, opened the morning’s program with a feisty, character-filled performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.”

De Waart and the orchestra gave Strauss’ programmatic piece a vivid, completely engaging, performance. From principal horn player Matthew Annin’s ringing horn lines to some beautifully executed, turn-on-a-dime shifts in character over the course of the piece, their performance was a highly evocative experience — a bit like hearing a film score and getting to imagine the scenes it should accompany.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who appeared the MSO’s “The Marriage of Figaro” performances last weekend, took the stage with a deeply stirring, beautifully crafted performance of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.”

Willis-Sørensen mixed a warm, flexible sound with nimble, easy technical work, and fluid, expressive musical deliveries, supported beautifully by de Waart and the orchestra.

Pianist Emanuel Ax, who filled the program’s second half with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, apparently is built to play Brahms. From a gentle singing sound to declamatory, sometimes almost defiant musical statements, his was a performance filled with expressive intent and nuance, and tremendous musical character.

Part of the joy of hearing Ax’s performance was watching him listen to and interact with de Waart and the orchestra. He nodded and moved to their music when he wasn’t playing, trading ideas and statements with them when he was.

MSO principal cellist Susan Babini gave an exquisite performance of the long, lyrical cello lines that are featured in the piece’s third movement.

When Ax returned to the stage to answer a standing ovation, he brought along a piece of music. He motioned for Babini to come forward, and the two offered an achingly beautiful rendition of the third movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata.

Both players moved gracefully from melody to accompaniment and back again throughout the sonata, picking up each other’s musical ideas like old friends finishing each other’s sentences, and giving a moving performance one hated to see come to an end.

NY Phiharmonic

Artist-in-Residence: Emanuel Ax 2012/13.
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Next Concerts

    June 2, 2017

    Kansas City, MO

    Kansas City Symphony

    MOZART Piano Concerto No.16 in D major, K.451

    Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K 459

    June 3, 2017

    Kansas City, MO

    Kansas City Symphony

    MOZART Piano Concerto No.16 in D major, K.451

    Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K 459

    June 4, 2017

    Kansas City, MO

    Kansas City Symphony

    MOZART Piano Concerto No.16 in D major, K.451

    Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K 459

    July 6, 2017

    Lenox, MA

    Tanglewood

    Program:
    SCHUBERT – The Shepherd on the Rock, D.965
    SCHUBERT – Auf dem Strom, D.943
    SCHUBERT – Part-songs with piano
    SCHUBERT – Lebensstürme, D.947
    SCHUBERT – Variations in B minor, D.823
    SCHUBERT – Rondo in A, D.951

    Other performers: ANNA POLONSKY (piano), PETER SERKIN (piano), WILLIAM R. HUDGINS (clarinet), JAMES SOMMERVILLE (horn), TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER VOCAL FELLOWS (vocals)

     

    July 22, 2017

    Lenox, MA

    Tanglewood

    Program:
    BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem (21 min) Download Program Notes
    Thomas ADÈS – …but all shall be well
    BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor (42 min)

    Other performers: THOMAS ADES (conductor)

    August 3, 2017

    Lenox, MA

    Tanglewood

    Program:
    SCHUBERT – Der König in Thule, D.367
    SCHUBERT – Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118
    SCHUBERT – Schäfers Klagelied, D.121
    SCHUBERT – Rastlose Liebe, D.138
    SCHUBERT – Sonatina No. 3 in G minor for violin and piano, D.408
    Colin JACOBSEN – New Work for mezzo-soprano and piano trio (world premiere)
    SCHUBERT – Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, D.898 (Op. 99)

    Other performers: COLIN JACOBSEN (violin), YO-YO MA (cello), JAMIE BARTON (mezzo-soprano)

    August 17, 2017

    Lenox, MA

    Tanglewood

    Program:
    SCHUBERT – Sonatina No. 2 in A minor for violin and piano, D.385
    SCHUBERT – Arpeggione Sonata for cello and piano, D.821
    SCHUBERT – Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat, D.929 (Op. 100)

    Other performers: PAMELA FRANK (violin), YO-YO MA (cello)

    August 23, 2017

    Lenox, MA

    Tanglewood

    Program:
    SCHUBERT – Impromptus, D.935
    Samuel ADAMS – Impromptus (2016)
    SCHUBERT – Schwanengesang, D.957

    Other performers: SIMON KEENLYSIDE (baritone)

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Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Brahms: Music For 2 Pianos
Haydn: Piano Sonatas
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor
Mendelssohn: Piano Trios
Strauss: Enoch Arden

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Extract from masterclass given by Emanuel Ax on Beethoven Piano Sonatas and Variations. The student is Nicolas Van Poucke. The full masterclass is available on DVD from www.masterclassfoundation.org

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