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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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CSOA archivist Frank Villella and pianist Kirill Gerstein in the Rosenthal Archives vault

Kirill Gerstein, our guest pianist this week, in town to perform Sergei Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, visited the Rosenthal Archives for a tour and to view several items in our collections.

In addition to seeing several Prokofiev-related photographs and vintage program books, Gerstein also was very interested in materials relating to composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who was a frequent soloist with the CSO between 1892 and 1915. He also spent some time carefully perusing an early edition of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto used by Theodore Thomas for the Orchestra’s inaugural concerts in October 1891; Hungarian pianist Rafael Joseffy was the soloist for those first concerts.

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(The Archives is a popular place for performers of Prokofiev’s music: guest conductor Stéphane Denève visited in November 2011 when he was in Chicago to lead the Orchestra in a Suite from The Love for Three Oranges and the Second Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos, and both conductor Sakari Oramo and pianist Yuja Wang visited in May 2013, when they performed the Third Piano Concerto.)

Prokofiev was soloist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the Second Piano Concerto on February 28 and March 1, 1930. Assistant Conductor Eric DeLamarter conducted. After intermission the composer returned to conduct his ballet Le pas d’acier. On March 24, 1930, Prokofiev and his wife—soprano Lina Llubera—gave a recital at Orchestra Hall under the auspices of the Chicago Society for Cultural Relations with Russia.

Prokofiev is soloist in his Second Piano Concerto, Eric DeLamarter conducts. February 28 and March 1, 1930

February 28 and March 1, 1930

Prokofiev recital with his wife as soloist

March 24, 1930

Program book biography from February and March 1930 appearances

The composer’s program book biography from the February and March 1930 appearances

The back cover of the 1930 program book also contained two Prokofiev-related advertisements. The inside cover announced the upcoming release of the Boston Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of the Classical Symphony (Symphony no. 1) conducted by Serge Koussevitzky on Victor. The outside cover contained a endorsed advertisement for Lyon & Healy as a distributor of Steinway pianos: “When he composes or plays—Prokofieff uses Steinway.”

Victor advertisement Steinway advertisement

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

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