This is a milestone year for the concert pianist Emanuel Ax: It’s been 50 years since he arrived in the U.S. Born in Ukraine in 1949, Ax came to North America as a boy with his family. After a year and a half in Winnipeg, Canada, the Axes moved to New York in 1961. Emanuel was 12 at the time, and he enrolled at the Juilliard School.
Earlier this week - ahead of his appearances with the Houston Symphony on Friday, Saturday and Sunday playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 – Ax spoke about his half-century in the U.S. He has many fond memories, but he’s not fixated on the “good old days,” when everything was so much better. On the contrary, his view of the present is optimistic.
Q: What were the circumstances for your family’s move to New York?
A: It had to do with my dad, who was looking for work. His field was speech and voice therapy. It was a pretty new field at the time, and there was no work to be had in Winnipeg, so he moved to New York.
Q: And what did you think of New York?
A: It was huge, noisy, exciting. It was the center of music, in my mind, and it remains that way. At Juilliard, I was in the pre-college program, where I was surrounded by incredibly talented people, in every respect. It was an incredible place for talented people – and I was a small fish in a big pond.
Q: How would you describe the state of classical music in America in those days?
A: As a kid, I didn’t really know anything beyond New York. I started traveling to play when I was around 25, in the mid-’70s. I felt it was a thriving time, and there was a lot of interest in music. When I played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in 1976, I felt I’d arrived in paradise.
Q: What changes have you seen in the past 50 years?
A: The orchestras are getting better and better. When I was starting out, most smaller orchestras wouldn’t have been able to give a really good performance of a Mahler symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But they can do it now.
Q: Is this because music has become more competitive?
A: I think the level of talent is growing because students are exposed to more music all the time. And the level of instruction has risen because we have better teachers with every generation. Generally speaking, the professional side of classical music right now is in a very wonderful state. It’s like the four-minute mile: Once it was broken by Roger Bannister, a lot of people did it.
Q: What are some of your most memorable moments?
A: This past spring, I played my 100th concert with the New York Philharmonic, and that was very special. And certainly I remember playing with the great conductors: Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur. Any time you walk on stage with one of them, it’s a highlight. I’ve been very fortunate to have these opportunities.
Q: Even though standards are high today, some people will still say that classical music is dying. How do you feel about this view?
A: We’ve addressed the professional side of things very well – but on the audience side, there are issues. Partly, it’s the diversity of the country. It used to be more monolithic: There used to be three TV channels, but now there are 500. At one time American theater was centered on Broadway, but now you can see good theater anywhere. What that means is a splintering of the audience.
When Leonard Bernstein was doing his young people’s concerts, families were interested in that as a main part of education. I think that’s no longer true – and professional musicians have to address this problem. That means not just educating little kids but also adults because we’ve had a couple of generations now to whom music is not second nature. We should push the idea of playing an instrument – and it’s never too late. I meet people who say, “I wish I’d studied music when I was younger.” And I say, “So go and study it now.”
Q: What do you see in the future for classical music in the U.S.?
A: I hope it will maintain its incredibly high professional level. And I hope we’ll develop future audiences who are really excited about going to a hall to hear Mahler and Beethoven. That’s my hope.
Q: And what about your personal ambitions? You’ve done so much; is there anything you haven’t done yet that you want to do?
A: There are still some pieces of music I’d like to study. But, other than that, I’d just like to keep getting better. One of the nice things about being a musician is that there’s always room for improvement, so you can just keep working. I don’t think about retiring – because I’m not going to retire!
© Colin Eatock 2011