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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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At the beginning of a video documentary chronicling the recording sessions for Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in 1987, Sir Georg Solti said, “I was fortunate enough. I met in my life many great musicians, composers, conductors, piano players. But if I’m looking back on my long life now today, who is the musician whom I admire most, I think it is Bartók.”

Solti was also a part of the premiere in Hungary, and recounted in his Memoirs: “I remember that in 1938, when Bartók and his wife, Ditta Pásztory, gave the Hungarian premiere of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Ernest Ansermet conducting, at the Budapest Opera, I was called upon at the last minute to turn pages for Mrs. Bartók. As I had not seen the complicated score before, the task was not easy. I have never in my life attended any other performance that had as little success as this one. When the piece ended, most of the audience remained silent; then there were a few perfunctory claps. I felt sad and embarrassed for Bartók.”

With fellow pianist Murray Perahia and percussionists Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill, Solti recorded the sonata at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in October 1987. For the release, the sonata was paired with Solti and Perahia’s account of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn recorded in September 1982.

For CBS Masterworks Records, Anthony B. Faulkner was the control engineer, Peter Jones was the tape operator and technical supervisor, and Thomas MacCluskey was the editor. The recording won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

The video documentary was released by Kultur and was directed by Herbert Chappell. A few excerpts from the program are posted below.

The attached YouTube videos are not the property of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. We just thought they were interesting.

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Just after winning the Avery Fisher Prize (an award he shared with Lynn Harrell), twenty-seven-year-old Murray Perahia made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in January 1975 under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, performing Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto. His program book biography is here.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Perahia was praised for his “bravura in the most generous measure . . . perfectly suited to this repertory. . . . [he] has all the flair for color and phrasing, all the skill in nuance and expression needed to make a Mendelssohn concerto sound worthy of Mozart. It was a gracious, lyric performance for all its energy, and a very exciting debut.” And in the Chicago Tribune, “Perahia is no ordinary pianist. At 27, he has considerably more behind him than the customary string of awards. . . . [He is] an immensely talented musician who seemingly had everything.” The complete reviews are here, here, and here.

With Solti and the CSO at Orchestra Hall, Perahia also appeared in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 on April 21, 22, and 23, 1977; in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto on November 30, December 1, and 2, 1978; in Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto on October 9, 10, and 11, 1980; in Schumann’s Piano Concerto on September 24, 25, and 26, 1987; and in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 on March 14, 15, and 18, 1997.

Out of town, he performed with Solti and the Orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 on April 20 at the University of Chicago and April 25, 1977, in Milwaukee; and in Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto on October 13, 1980, also in Milwaukee.

Perahia also appeared on a special concert at Orchestra Hall celebrating Sir Georg’s seventy-fifth birthday on October 9, 1987, in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major with the maestro conducting from the keyboard.

He also recorded with Solti on two occasions: in 1982 performing Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn for Two Pianos, and in 1987 performing Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (with Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill). Both recordings were for CBS Records.

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