Interview: Emanuel Ax

The acclaimed pianist on why the future of classical music depends on enthusiastic amateurs.


By Jessica Duchen, March 16, 2011
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It is 7am in Texas and Emanuel (Manny) Ax is off to the airport. Just hours earlier he gave an all-Schubert piano recital and he probably needed more sleep afterwards than he got; but he insists that he is happy to talk.

A quiet, self-effacing character and a genuinely poetic musician - the antithesis of the glitz that characterises some of his more populist colleagues - Ax is one of those too-rare souls who maintain a positive outlook, drawing out all that is best around them wherever they perform.

He is coming to London for two concerts this week: first, a performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, in which he will play two short, contrasting concertos. Then two days later, on Sunday, he is at the Wigmore Hall for a recital devoted to some of Schubert's best-loved piano works.

Ax, who is 61, seems very much a New Yorker, but in fact he was born in Lvov, Poland, where his parents were fortunate to survive the Second World War. "They both lost their families. My father went into hiding and my mother was lucky enough, somehow, just to get by," he says. "They married after the war and I was their only child." In his early years he was sheltered to some degree from the tragedies that had blighted the older generation - "I knew as much about it as the average Jewish kid" - but eventually his parents decided to leave Poland.

When Ax was 10, they crossed the Atlantic, first settling in Winnipeg, Canada, and later in New York. "They had a tough life," says Ax, "coming over without language, without money, without anything. My father had odd jobs and my mother worked as a companion for a lady who was a manic depressive. They made a go of it. Later I was able to help out." As he was an only child, he reflects, a weight of expectation fell on his shoulders: "I think, like many immigrant families, they pinned all their hopes on the kid. There was a lot of pressure. But I was very lucky."

Indeed he was - it was a wonderful era to be a budding musician in New York. As a teenage piano student, Ax's second home was Carnegie Hall, where he heard all the great performers of the day: "Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, the young Vladimir Ashkenazy, the young Maurizio Pollini, the young Martha Argerich. All these people were so great: you'd go to a recital and the next day you'd try and sound like them!"

He took a degree in French at Columbia University, but after winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1973 his path seemed settled. Today he is one of the world's best-loved musicians and his recordings have won seven Grammy Awards.

Ax has been a devoted chamber musician from the start, and recently two particularly great string players joined him in the recording studio: the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It was their first go at playing together as a trio. "I've been working with Yo-Yo for 40 years," says Ax, "and I've known Itzhak for a long time, but we haven't done many concerts together. When you have artists of that calibre it's just a privilege to be on the stage with them." He is being modest again: they recorded the two trios by Mendelssohn, the piano parts of which are particularly demanding.

Schubert, too, is a hefty challenge, in another way. "I've not done much Schubert before because I've been worried about it," Ax confesses. "It's hard to get anything right, of course, but with Schubert it's even harder." This, he says, is because the composers otherworldly piano music requires a unique sense of "timelessness".

"I'm not sure I'm getting it, but I'm trying," he says.

Ax, who is married to the Japanese pianist Yoko Nozaki - the couple have two children - is as modest about his hectic schedule as he is about his playing. When he is not teaching at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, he is on the road, giving around 80 concerts a year. "I'm usually at the piano; that's my life," he remarks. "I read, I watch sports and I practise. I sleep when I can."

Of course there is more to it than that. Ax is a passionate advocate for music in education and works extensively with Yo-Yo Ma to this effect. It is essential, he feels, in a world that is increasingly divided in its approach to music-making.

"On the professional side of music, I've never seen anything like the level of accomplishment the young players have now," he says. "It's mind-boggling. There was never a time before when almost every professional pianist was capable of playing the complete Chopin etudes. The profession is in great shape.

"But on the listening side, we have more problems because fewer people play instruments for fun - that's very sad. There's a separation between the professional and the amateur and I think that's not so healthy. The issue is that it's not easy to play an instrument: it takes a certain amount of effort, application and daily practice. And there are so many choices for kids now, especially with good music being readily available without having to learn to play it. I hope the musical community will be interested in pushing the idea of playing instruments. That, I think, is the secret to everything. It's like sports: if you don't kick a ball around, you probably won't go to football matches. A lot of people do care about this situation and are working to change it. Yo-Yo is incredibly involved. Simon Rattle is another great advocate. I'm sure they will have an effect. They are leading the way towards a whole new vision of what a musician should be."

And with that Ax has to pack his things and catch his plane. But he has one last message: "I always tell people that it's never too late to learn to play the piano."

    Last updated: 3:11pm, March 17 2011