January 8, 2010

Review: Emanuel Ax

Excited murmurs of anticipation. Flashes of velvet scarves and straightened sweater collars. Faces showing crushing disappointment as doors shut against hopeful feet. It's all here- the rush, the eager ears, the blue-lit stage. What is this? The tenth American Idol finale? No- the hair's too gray for that. A national political convention? No- no riots, at least not yet. This is a different kind of voracity.

And then he enters, for it's past seven o'clock and those of us sitting in Spaulding are shifting in our seats. Here he is at last- the great Emanuel Ax.

He walks quietly and hurriedly. It is not a lack of confidence- it is his preoccupation with his music; his mind is in A-flat major now and the audience is irrelevant. He unbuttons his blazer, sits at the grand Steinway, and begins to play. It is a Chopin, the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61. Mr. Ax does not proclaim this to the hilltops; he does not use any neon signs; he simply embodies the music, and the audience sighs in response.

Thunderous applause; two Chopin mazurkas: Op. 24 No.2, C Major and Op. 56, No. 3, C Minor. Those seated in the dark auditorium- for it is dark; the house lights are down- are awed. Some, perhaps, have heard the pieces before and appreciate the major and minor; some have never even heard a piece of Chopin that has stayed in their memory. All watch in disbelief as Mr. Ax's hands fly quickly- neatly- amazingly over the keys.

The Schumann Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, follows. Captivated, no one claps between the three movements, even those in the audience inexperienced with the etiquette of classical concerts (and due to the momentousness of the event and the availability of tickets to Dartmouth students, you may be sure there were a few) though Mr. Ax does allow in the post-concert discussion that he wouldn't have minded applause if it arose from true emotion.

Suddenly, it is intermission, and the spell is broken. Just as suddenly, intermission ends, and the spell is easily recast.

The house lights are up for the second half of the performance- we learn later, in the discussion period, that Mr. Ax asked for this light so that he could be more aware of his audience. And they are, indeed, his- the Schumann Fatasiestucke, Op. 12, is titled all in German and written almost two centuries ago but it does not matter because Emanuel Ax is the music himself.

Then, four Mazurkas, as Chopin returns to the program; the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat Major, Op. 22, follow. These pieces in the second half seem more raw, more full of energy; there are chords struck that pierce the heart of the audience.

Again, the sudden break. The concert is over. But wait- is it over? After several rounds of applause, Emanuel Ax emerges from backstage yet again and sits. What will the encore be? Posited guesses included Schumann's Traumerei. But no. It is the Chopin Waltz in A Minor, No. 3; the "Valse Triste."

This last waltz- the last dance of the evening- was to me the most moving. It departed from the program of Polonaises, Fantasies and Mazurkas but continued to use the music of Chopin; one could almost hear the voice of Chopin sighing at the loss of his homeland. Mr. Ax maintains that his Polish birth does not lend him an advantage when he masters pieces written by Chopin; but through this waltz one could almost imagine him Chopin reincarnate, visiting this great stage to tell his tale of sorrow once more.

Emanuel Ax needs no more pretty words from me; his music stands for itself. All I can do is lay my praise on the high heap of laurels and hope that he will return to Dartmouth before another thirty-five years are out.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:17 PM

    I went to that concert thirty-five years ago. I'm glad you could go to this one. The '48s have something to look forward to.