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Emanuel Ax in 1980 (Nick Sangiamo photo)

Wishing a very happy seventieth birthday to the remarkable American pianist Emanuel Ax! A longtime Chicago favorite—in recital, as a chamber musician, and as soloist with orchestra—he has appeared in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival on near-countless occasions.

Following first place triumphs at the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists and the Artur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, Ax made his local debut at Ravinia on July 23, 1975, substituting for an indisposed Alexis Weissenberg. Performing an all-Chopin program, “the young Polish-American master took the evening by storm,” according to Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune. “Still in his middle twenties . . . there is nothing of the poseur in him, no excess mannerism, no youthful sentimentality, no histrionic display. He walks onstage, settles solidly onto the bench, shakes a hand to limber up, and begins to play. At that moment, or within a few seconds, a transformation of near miraculous proportions takes place. . . . This is quite possibly the outstanding poet-performer of his generation.”

Ax made two debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year in 1976, on May 20 and 21 in Orchestra Hall, performing Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto under the baton of Henry Mazer, and on July 29 at the Ravinia Festival, as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 with Andrew Davis on the podium. According to Alan Artner in the Chicago Tribune, media reports following Ax’s competition wins had compared the young pianist to Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. “But to have actually heard him in Liszt’s Second Concerto was to discover that Ax in n a class virtually by himself. . . . His performance was intelligent, wholly refreshing . . .”

Emanuel Ax in 2016 (Lisa Marie Mazzucco photo)

Since then, Ax has been one of the most frequent guest artists in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as with visiting orchestras, and as a chamber musician and recitalist with an astounding array of collaborators. He has worked with conductors David Afkham, Daniel Barenboim, James Conlon, James DePreist, Sir Mark Elder, Christoph Eschenbach, Lawrence Foster, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Mariss Jansons, Bernhard Klee, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, David Robertson, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Georg Solti, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Christoph von Dohnányi. Ax also has collaborated with Yefim Bronfman, Robert Chen, Evelyn Glennie,
Benjamin Hochman, Aleksey Igudesman, Richard Hyung-ki Joo, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, Orli Shaham, Raimi Solomonow, Isaac Stern, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Orion Weiss. With visiting orchestras, he also has performed in Orchestra Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Juilliard Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Ax returns to the Ravinia Festival this summer, as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on August 2, 2019, in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with Rafael Payare on the podium. He will be back in Orchestra Hall next season on March 2, 2020, for an all-Beethoven chamber music concert, collaborating with violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Happy, happy birthday!

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McBurney

Gerard McBurney (Dan Rest photo)

On November 13, 2005—under the leadership of Martha Gilmer, vice president of artistic administration, and composer and writer Gerard McBurney—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched Beyond the Score with an in-depth analysis followed by a complete performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Daniel Harding conducted.

“The introduction deftly mixed vintage photos projected onto a huge overhead screen, excerpts from Strauss’s letters, commentary from his contemporaries, and short excerpts from the tone poem itself,” wrote Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The pacing was seamless, the information on Strauss and his era coming in easily digestible but never watered-down nuggets. When the CSO played the entire work straight through after intermission, the large audience couldn’t help but feel like newly minted connoisseurs. Enjoying subtleties well below the surface beauties of Strauss’s tone poem, they were attentive, at times rapt. McBurney and his colleagues at the CSO succeeded brilliantly with the most difficult aspect of these kinds of programs: keeping the focus on the music.”

In May 2006, McBurney officially joined the staff of the CSOA as artistic programming advisor. Since then, the Beyond the Score concept evolved into freer and more vivid presentations and collaborations with a wide variety of art collections, scholars, libraries, folk musicians, and actors from all over the world.

A Pierre Dream

A Pierre Dream, November 14, 2014 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Highlights of the series have included thorough analyses of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Holst’s The Planets, and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde were presented as seamless dramatizations, and Pierre Boulez led Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and closely advised on Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Concertmaster Robert Chen was featured in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade; and Gwendolyn Brown, an alumna of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, performed Negro spirituals as part of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. In 2014, McBurney—collaborating with architect Frank Gehry—presented a special and comprehensive examination of music by Pierre Boulez.

This article also appears here.

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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