MTT and Ax open New World season with Mozart and Schoenberg

By David Fleshler

South Florida Classical Review

16 October 2016

Sixty-five years after his death, Arnold Schoenberg can still be a tough sell for concert audiences.

At the season-opening concert of the New World Symphony Saturday in Miami Beach, the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Emanuel Ax did their best to prepare the audience for a performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto. Speaking from the New World Center stage, they discussed the work’s themes, demonstrated a few passages and tried to show how the music could be experienced in the same spirit as a concerto by Brahms or Tchaikovsky.

They did not understate the difficulty of grappling with the music of a man whose twelve-tone system of composition attempted to overturn the existing order in music and drove many audience members from the concert hall. “The piece you’re about to hear is definitely one of the most difficult and challenging things there is for all the people in the room,” Tilson Thomas said.

Ax, long an advocate for the concerto, which he recorded with Esa-Pekka Salonen, played in a soft-edged manner—except when the drama of the music required a harder touch. From the lyric opening, his sensual, non-percussive approach to the work fit it into the romantic piano tradition which preceded it, while capturing the concerto’s unique and unearthly mood.

In this performance, Schoenberg’s strange harmonies, often so harsh to the ear, didn’t exactly fade away. But they were accompanied by an emphasis on the textures, the drama, the sweeping sense of theater with which the performers built to the work’s climaxes. There were glints of the late 19th century in the glowing wind harmonies, and in the work’s rhythmic drive. Dissonances came off as eerie and melancholy, rather than grating, except in the brassy climaxes, where they contributed to these passages’ craggy power.

No pre-performance sales job was required for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14. Ax, giving an ironman demonstration of stamina in an evening of two concertos, played in a light, articulated manner, with a sense of the long sweep of Mozart’s melodic passage work. In the second movement, against a glowing accompaniment from the orchestra, he brought an almost Chopinesque sense of wistfulness and dreaminess to the long, yearning melodies. In the last movement, his spiky, angular playing gave contrapuntal passages just enough bite, while remaining within Mozartean proportions, with a fine sense of tension in the dark passage leading up to a restatement of the main theme.

The concert opened with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which Tilson Thomas described as “one of my most favorite pieces.”

With many of the greatest theme-and-variations works, the composer seems to draw a contrast between the drab or trivial theme on which the work is based and the complex and imaginative variations that follow. The theme here, which musicologists say wasn’t actually composed by Haydn, isn’t drab or trivial, but the orchestra played in a subdued and formal manner that left lots of room for the performance to develop in musical power.

The variations built magnificently, with brilliant individual passages that felt part of a larger whole. Particularly strong were the minor-key variations. Tilson Thomas drew maximum tension from one in which winds and strings engage in a pensive counterpoint, and another, a quiet, rustling passage that created the darkness from which the build-up to the sunlit finale could begin. The finale, however, felt underpowered. It’s a clanging, blaring statement, with the ping of a triangle on top, and it didn’t feel like the weighted, joyous musical payoff that it could be.

The concert ended with Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a virtuoso work that the New World musicians tackled with gusto. Textures were transparent, with horns played in a spirited and immaculate manner. There was a touch of grotesqueness to the swooping melodies, appropriate to this medieval tale of blasphemy, irreverence and death. Playing the E-flat clarinet, which represents the doomed jokester Till Eulenspiegel, Ran Kampel brought out the humor, humanity and final desperation of the character as he faces execution.

CSO, Emanuel Ax electrify in season opener at the Taft

The brass of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra burst upon the finale of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 with electrifying power. It was the summit of a gripping performance led by Louis Langrée to open the orchestra’s season on Thursday night.

The celebratory evening included cheers, standing ovations and a stunning performance by guest pianist Emanual Ax in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.

It was also a test of the 2,200-capacity Taft Theatre, Downtown, the temporary home where the orchestra will perform this season while Music Hall undergoes a $137 million renovation. Although the acoustics were greatly improved from an open rehearsal held last January, the hall gets mixed reviews.

What a joy it was to hear Ax, who was observing the 40th anniversary of his first performance with the Cincinnati Symphony. Beethoven did not give the name “Emperor” to his Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, composed even as Napoleon was occupying Vienna. Nevertheless, it is the most magnificent of concertos, and Ax was a superb interpreter.

From those glorious opening runs and arpeggios that Beethoven gives to the piano, it was clear that this would be a masterful performance. There was a wonderful clarity and presence to the pianist’s sound. Ax played with exciting precision, even in the most treacherous passages.

A more bombastic pianist might have overwhelmed the orchestra in this hall. But Ax summoned orchestral sonorities without any sign of harshness, tackling great fistfuls of difficulties with finesse. Best of all, his playing was heartfelt, with warmly shaped themes and lyrical moments that shimmered.

His phrasing in the slow movement was sheer poetry. The pianist’s dialogue with the orchestra was magical, and he communicated every note with singing tone. The dance-like finale was exuberant, yet his phrasing was always imaginative.

Langrée was a sensitive partner, and balanced the orchestra well. With the crowd on their feet, the pianist performed an encore of intimate beauty: Schumann’s “In the Evening” from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. It was unforgettable.

After intermission, the orchestra, which included piano, celesta, two harps and expanded percussion, filled every inch of the Taft’s stage for an equally unforgettable performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Written in 1937, it is subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism,” Shostakovich’s answer after Stalin condemned his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Far from bowing to Soviet pressure, though, it is both tragic and uplifting, and remains one of the great symphonies of the 20th century.

Certainly the bombastic finale strikes the optimistic chord that the Soviets wanted, with heroic themes in the brass, and powerful, incessant pounding on the timpani (Richard Jensen). But Langrée excelled also in finding the melancholy of this symphony. In the first movement, one was instantly plunged into its emotional depths. The strings communicated its angular themes with bleak color, between searing buildups by the brass.

The conductor led with momentum, yet also allowed soloists the time to breathe. They responded with fine playing. There was the extraordinary atmosphere of the lone violin (concertmaster Timothy Lees) against only a celesta (Michael Chertock) at the end of the first movement. An insistent tune in the winds brought out the sarcasm of the scherzo. In the Largo, oboist Dwight Parry’s desolate theme against pianissimo tremolos in the strings was extraordinary.

The brass-filled finale was a glowing summation, and there were cheers at the cutoff.

As for the acoustics of the hall, there was clarity to the sound, but what was missing was the warmth and blend that we are accustomed to hearing in Music Hall. I sometimes couldn’t hear the higher overtones, as well as the mid-range of the orchestra. From my seat in the balcony’s left side, the cellos sounded distant, as did the spectacular trumpet passages of the Shostakovich.

The Taft has had more than $3 million in upgrades. However on Thursday, concertgoers complained of the heat, despite a new air conditioning system. You can likely expect more “tweaking” as the season progresses.

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! NPR feature “Not My Job: Pianist Emanuel Ax Takes A Quiz On Axe Body Spray”

Last week of August NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” cast & crew along with their host PETER SAGAL were recording at Tanglewood — the outdoor music venue in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts — and they thought it would be a good time to talk with classical pianist Emanuel Ax, who has won seven Grammy awards and recorded with the world’s greatest orchestras.

They’ve invited Mr. Ax to play a game called “You make men irresistible to women!” Three questions about Axe body spray.

Listen to the entire segment & see the transcript here

Emanuel Ax: Variations – New Sony Classical Release

Emanuel Ax: Variations – New Sony Classical Release

Recording Available January 22, 2013
Variations Features Three Works Never Before Recorded By The Pianist

Sony Classical is proud to announce a new recording by pianist Emanuel Ax of four significant sets of Variations by four titanic composers: Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, and Copland.  Variations is available on Tuesday, January 22, 2013.

Read more …

Music review: John Adams’ ‘Absolute Jest’ in San Francisco

Music review: John Adams’ ‘Absolute Jest’ in San Francisco

When John Adams was a young composer and conductor in San Francisco in the early ’70s, he would often perform the experimental music of John Cage and other radicals, which was the hip thing to do at the time. But he has said that all that avant-garde business could leave him musically dissatisfied, and he’d go home and put on recordings of late Beethoven string quartets.

Read more …

NY Phiharmonic

Artist-in-Residence: Emanuel Ax 2012/13.
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Audio Player

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


Video Player

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