Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reunion with "Manny" at the SF Symphony

With Emanuel Ax after the performance at Davies Symphony Hall

After having met a very genial Emanuel Ax a year ago backstage at Davies Symphony Hall, I was excited to have the chance to see and to hear him play again. One reason for the anticipation was that the last time I’d seen Mr. Ax, he'd performed Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and had “very few notes” to play. He’d told me to come back when he was playing something “a little more substantial” for the piano. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing him play Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37.

San Francisco Symphony Director Michael Tilson Thomas took the podium and began the evening with Gustav Mahler’s Blumine, which along with the introduction of Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin seems to be a favored program opener for the past couple of years. I believe this was the third time I’d heard it played by the SFS. I was struck by the ethereal beginning with solo trumpet; one felt as if floating atop the clouds of the Alps. Mahler deftly weaved melodies amongst various instrumental groups, leading to a climax not unlike that of the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5 albeit without the ensuing glissando. The piece ended with an ardent and resigned sigh, a sigh that spoke to the joys of relegating oneself to the sweet vagaries of romantic love.

Emanuel Ax sat himself on a regular chair rather than a piano bench, and was very engaged with the orchestra throughout Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor. I enjoyed his down-to-earth demeanor and the way he cocked his head in tiny, bird-like movements, cheeks quivering to the music. When the piano entered, solo, the clarity of Mr. Ax’s playing was a breath of fresh air despite the forthright, almost terse quality of the music. The comparison may be imprecise, but I was reminded of a crystalline, austere and highly structured German Riesling wine: steely, unadorned, and blindingly beautiful in its clarity and purity.

Beethoven kept his pianist busy in the first movement (Allegro con brio): arpeggios, runs, long trills, and very satisfying cadences when granted. Mr. Ax played the upper register triplets in the right hand with joy and aplomb. Towards the end of the movement we were treated to a furious cadenza that almost became a fugue but dissolved into silky, arpeggiated passages.

The second movement, Largo, opened with the piano alone. The mood was contemplative and hushed, having left behind the overt, sparkling tone of the first movement. Mr. Ax’s touch here made the piano sound warmly muted, and I felt as if I had gone inside myself for a heartfelt introspection. I noticed that Mr. Ax sometimes flapped any fingers not being used in a two-beat flutter, and lifted his hands in a little flourish when alternating them in arpeggiated passages. Otherwise, he never showed any distracting or flamboyant movements. All other physical gestures seemed to be in direct service to creating the sound quality he desired.

Rondo: Allegro began without pause after a surprisingly vehement finish for such a lovely, dreamy Largo. Beethoven seemed to have no qualms about returning to the furious, busy quality he is well known for. Harmonically I was a bit thrown off, since the piano solo starting the final movement sounded like it was in E minor - the Largo was in E Major - but only later did I realize Beethoven had set it all up to return to the "home key" of C minor. This moment of realization was delightful, but I couldn’t help feeling Beethoven had been toying with us all along.

Beethoven makes use of counterpoint in this final movement, with the strings coming in with a fugal section and what seemed like a two-part invention in a short, bubbly piano solo. Finally, we were granted the satisfaction of an emphatic V7 -> I (Dominant to Tonic) as a joyful coda in C major brought the concerto to a close.

The audience would not let Mr. Ax leave the stage, and after three curtain calls he granted us with a beautiful encore. I am ashamed that I do not remember what he played - I'm now thinking it was Johannes Brahms' Intermezzo. Allegretto Grazioso, from Klavierst├╝cke Op. 76, but I'm not sure. [Update: It was "Des Abends" from Fantasiest├╝cke Op. 12 by Brahms' mentor Schumann. Of course I realized this shortly after posting!] Mr. Ax enveloped us in a dreamscape in which time was suspended and we floated on silver clouds.

After the concert I was pleased that Mr. Ax remembered me upon meeting again, and he expressed happiness that I had finally heard him play “just a little more” than at the Feldman concert. The man has a wonderful sense of humor.

Of course I asked "Manny" to sign my program!

The entire second half of the program was Michael Tilson Thomas’ tribute to the style of concert program championed by Jascha Heifetz to bring attention to the “encore piece.” Mr. Tilson Thomas emphasized that the point of such programs was to create the perfect set of pieces to capture exactly the right mood. He referred to this kind of programming as a “bygone world of music-making” and urged us to hear the music “as one piece; don’t feel obliged to clap in between. Just enjoy the silence between them - you’ll know when we’ve reached the end.”

We were indeed treated to a palette of beautiful colors and moods:
  • Copland: Music from the film Our Town
  • Debussy: La Plus que lente
  • Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
  • Sibelius: Valse triste
  • Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34, no. 14
  • Delibes: Cortege de Bacchus, from Sylvia

Mr. Tilson Thomas was right; everyone knew when the program was over. Delibes’ piece shook us out of our melancholy reverie with trumpets! Percussion! The works! Everything screamed “finale” and the Cortege brought a wonderfully satisfying orchestral sound, full of triumph.

The entire second half was, for me, a nostalgic trip back to the jewel-box musical gems of my youth. Pieces I’d loved as a child but never heard again for years were brought back to me on a warm summer wind. It was magical. Even after I had returned home, I felt a light sheen of fairy dust on my shoulders.