The pianist talks about growing up in transit, maestros he’s loved, and what he’d like to do to certain audiences.
So how did you come to study piano?
That’s a very simple and unexciting story. In those days a lot of people had little pianos, just small uprights. I was seven years old and I started like everyone else. That was in Lvov, which is now the Ukraine, but at the time was the Soviet Union, and my parents were Polish. We then moved around a lot. I remember Warsaw very well, and Canada. I wound up in New York at the age of 12. I was just a kid but I had wonderful, wonderful ladies who taught me. They were extremely nice people. Just making kids feel that something is fun and serious at the same time is probably the hardest thing in the world. I was always very lucky with my teachers.
So did you get to listen to other pianists?
Oh sure. I heard the young Vladimir Ashkenazy. I think he was the first pianist I ever heard in a concert. I was five and he was 15. That was in Lvov. And in Warsaw I think I must have heard Sviatoslav Richter play once. When I was in Poland, the great hero was Van Cliburn. He had just won the Tchaikovsky competition in 1958 and he was all the rage. Certainly Rubinstein, because he was the quintessential Polish virtuoso. When I came to New York I heard pretty much all the great pianists of the time. From the age of 12, I haunted Carnegie Hall and listened to just about everybody.
You have a reputation for Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. What brings you back to their works again and again?
For a pianist it’s probably the most challenging, the most interesting and the most multifaceted music. There are a hundred ways to play it and I suppose as you grow up you never get tired of re-studying and trying to get better. Also, I try to play what I feel I can contribute something to. For example, I love Russian music; I love Rachmaninov; I love Prokofiev; I love Shostakovich. But I play almost none of that music because I don’t feel that I’m very good at it. So I like to listen to other pianists play it.
So in your opinion which 20th-century composers should join the Romantic and Classical greats?
Well, to some degree I think Schoenberg is someone who will last. Of composers today I’m pretty sure John Adams will – this is just my own feeling. One of the best pieces I’ve had the pleasure of premiering has been this short set of Brahms pieces by Brett Dean that I’m doing. It’s a solo piece that’s connected to Brahms Op 119 – it sort of goes between the pieces. I’m playing them in Melbourne. He’s a wonderful composer. I love his music.
I’ve heard you have some interesting opinions on applause in concerts?
Well, yes. For some reason people decided maybe 150 years ago that somehow you’re only supposed to cough or sneeze between movements of a piano concerto, rather than applaud. It doesn’t make any sense. A composer like Beethoven would not have written an ending like the Emperor Concerto’s first movement if he didn’t expect applause. Anybody who’s informed about the way concerts were in Beethoven’s time would know that not to have applause at the end of the first movement of a symphony would mean that people really hated the piece. Conversely I don’t think people are naturally moved to applause at the end of the Verdi Requiem, and yet you have people who wont applaud after the Sanctus, but will immediately yell bravo at the end of the Libera me. To me that may be good etiquette, but it’s bad manners. What we should do, of course, is applaud between movements and try to be silent during them. When a couple of people do applaud after a first movement, I immediately turn and bow. I don’t shush anybody; I think that’s a fine idea.
You’ve played under many great Maestros in your time. Who, for you, has stood out?
I’ve been lucky enough to be onstage with a lot of great men. I’ve had a long relationship, first of all, with Bernard Haitink, whom I deeply love in every way and have gotten to know over a 25-year period. Also Christoph von Dohnányi, whom I’ve gotten to know over a 25 or 30-year relationship. I love playing with Kurt Masur. I loved playing with Klaus Tennstedt. It was just thrilling to be onstage with him because you never felt that he was following someone. He was creating a musical experience. I think everyone on stage, – the whole orchestra – felt that. I think that’s what the great conductors do. They create a picture of a piece, and you feel that you want to be a part of that picture. I think there are many conductors in the younger generation who are also fantastic. Like your music director [David Robertson] who’s coming to Sydney. I think he’s very special. I met David on, I think, his very first American tour with a big orchestra. That was a tremendous experience. He has a remarkable, remarkable mind, and a big heart. He’s just wonderful knowing – you can’t imagine anything better. to be with – enthusiastic, intelligent, all-
You’re as famous for your chamber music as you are for solo work. How have you found your collaborators?
Well my longest, most frequent and closest partner is Yo Yo Ma. We met over 40 years ago at Juilliard and we hit it off on a personal level. We just liked each other and the playing sort of grew from that. We liked being together, we liked playing together, and we still do. It’s very much a part of my personal as well as my musical life. The truth is that with most of the people I’ve worked with over the years, it’s been very much both – personal and musical. And for me that’s a very important part of making music. I like to feel I’m on stage with friends, with people I like and admire.
You’ve been to Australia before. What things are you are looking forward to?
This is my fourth or fifth trip, but we’ve only been to Sydney and Melbourne. I think that Sydney is an incredibly beautiful city. We’re tennis mad so I’m hoping to line up some games for my wife when we’re there. I’m hoping too that we get a chance to go to the Yarra Valley for a day – and of course you eat well. You eat better in Australia than almost anywhere, I think. New York of course has fabulous restaurants, but the food mall in Melbourne drove me completely insane! I couldn’t decide where to go, there were so many fabulous choices.
Emanuel Ax plays in Sydney, June 12-21 and in Melbourne, June 24-30.