UN­CANNY AX MAN

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

ent back­grounds. Ax is the son of Pol­ish Holo­caust sur­vivors and grew up in War­saw, Win­nipeg and New York, where he went to study at the Juil­liard (and where he now teaches). Robertson grew up around the beaches of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. His work as a con­duc­tor has in­cluded po­si­tions with the avant-garde En­sem­ble In­tercon­tem­po­rain, in Paris, and the St Louis Sym­phony Orches­tra. The two met at a con­cert and be­came good friends.

Says Ax: “I thought he was go­ing to be a ter­ri­bly for­bid­ding per­son be­cause he was so knowl­edge­able about the most dif­fi­cult mu­sic in the world, and so forth, and he turned out to be just a won­der­fully warm, funny, great fel­low, who did by the way know ev­ery­thing about ev­ery­thing.

“I’m con­stantly bowled over by his sheer range of in­ter­ests, knowl­edge and ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb. He knows all of mu­sic, he re­lates that to paint­ing, to lit­er­a­ture, to the lat­est tele­vi­sion show, he’s learn­ing He­brew on the side, he’s a mir­a­cle.”

Says Robertson: “Manny’s mu­si­cal­ity is so clear and nat­u­ral that it is a joy to work with him. He’s very funny and some­what self-dep­re­cat­ing. Be­fore go­ing on stage, he’ll look at you and smile and say, ‘I apol­o­gise in ad­vance’, for any­thing that might go a lit­tle bit wrong ... He is very def­i­nitely the smartest guy in the room.”

In New York, both pi­anist and con­duc­tor see each other so­cially. Robertson says he and his fu­ture wife, pi­anist Orli Sha­ham, would spend time with Ax and his wife Yoko Nozaki, when “no one yet knew we were a cou­ple ... They were very dis­creet and kept it to them­selves. We go back quite a long way. He’s a won­der­ful guy.”

Ax and Robertson are of a com­mon mind about con­cert eti­quette, in par­tic­u­lar the vexed ques­tion of whether people should ap­plaud be­tween the move­ments of a con­certo or sym­phony. Robertson says, and Ax con­curs, that the com­poser gives clues as to how an au­di­ence may re­spond.

“I al­ways felt it was in­cred­i­bly silly to fin­ish the first move­ment of the Em­peror con­certo, or the Brahms B-flat, and in­stead of hear­ing ap­plause, hear­ing some people cough,” Ax says.

“It wasn’t meant to be heard that way ... I think the mu­sic sort of dic­tates (when to ap­plaud). To some­one unini­ti­ated in the so-called niceties of con­cert­go­ing, I think it would be more ob­vi­ous where ap­plause is in­di­cated and where it’s not.

“That’s just one of the un­nat­u­ral things that sur­rounds con­cert­go­ing, which I think we need to get rid of, to some de­gree.”

With the Mel­bourne Sym­phony Orches­tra, Ax will per­form Beethoven’s fourth piano con­certo with that orches­tra’s chief con­duc­tor, Andrew Davis. He will also give the Aus­tralian pre­miere of a re­cent work by Brett Dean, Hom­mage a Brahms, in which the three piano stud­ies are in­ter­leaved with the four pieces of Brahms’s Klavier­stucke, Op 119. Dean’s two outer move­ments are called En­gels­flugel (“An­gel’s wings”) and have del­i­cate, gos­samer tex­tures. The cen­tral move­ment is de­scribed as hav­ing a ner­vous en­ergy. Dean has also used the En­gels­flugel move­ments as the ba­sis for a 10-minute piece for winds, brass and per­cus­sion, which Robertson and the Syd­ney mu­si­cians will play in con­cert with the Em­peror con­certo.

Ax gave the pre­miere of Hom­mage a Brahms in the US last year and has per­formed it sev­eral times. Dean has ded­i­cated the set to him.

“I wanted a piece from Brett be­cause I had heard his vi­o­lin con­certo, which I thought was so won­der­ful, and I had met him in Mel­bourne,” Ax says. “He came up with a fan­tas­tic piece, it’s just won­der­ful. I’m pretty crazy about it.”

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