UNCANNY AX MAN
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.”