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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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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins our friends at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in mourning the passing of beloved Chicago actor John Mahoney. He died in Chicago on February 4, at the age of 77.

John Mahoney in rehearsal at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2008 (Chris Walker photo for the Chicago Tribune)

John Mahoney appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on three occasions, once at the Ravinia Festival and twice in Orchestra Hall, as follows:

July 14, 2001 (Ravinia Festival)
MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
John de Lancie, Narrator/Puck and director
John Mahoney, Bottom
Janet Zarish, Titania
Timothy Gregory, Oberon
Stacey Tappan, soprano
Lauren McNeese, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Children’s Choir
Josephine Lee, director

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma set the stage. “It was a dream of a midsummer’s night at the Ravinia Festival Saturday, the kind of warm, clear evening just made for picnicking and listening to music outdoors. The music offered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrew Davis provided a perfect match. After intermission, the pavilion light dimmed and sprites with glowing wands flitted through the night as the orchestra, singers and actors including John Mahoney . . . as the bumptious Bottom [he was] an endearing monster.”

April 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21, 2002 (Orchestra Hall)
STRAVINSKY The Soldier’s Tale
William Eddins, conductor
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
John Mahoney, Narrator
Paul Adelstein, Soldier
Hollis Resnik, Devil
Tina Cannon, dancer
John Bruce Yeh, clarinet
David McGill, bassoon
Craig Morris, trumpet
Jay Friedman, trombone
Joseph Guastafeste, bass
Edward Atkatz, percussion
Peter Amster, director and choreographer
Rafael Viñoly, stage designer

“Seizing the opportunity to do something different, the CSO teamed with Steppenwolf Theatre to stage The Soldier’s Tale, which Stravinsky wrote in 1918 as a theater piece,” wrote Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Mahoney was the dispassionate Narrator and Hollis Resnik a fashionable Devil in a generally lively staging by Peter Amster. Zukerman and six CSO musicians, conducted by William Eddins, perched on a tall, black platform centerstage, while Mahoney, Resnik, Paul Adelstein as the Soldier and dancer Tina Cannon spilled around the set of raised platforms and a few props devised by Rafael Viñoly. . . . Amster and his colleagues created a compelling drama. . . . Relaxed, making no judgments as he chronicled the Soldier’s victories and defeats, [Mahoney] was a sympathetic guide to Stravinsky’s morality tale.”

November 17, 18, 20, and 23, 2004 (Orchestra Hall)
BEETHOVEN Egmont
Mikko Franck, conductor
John Mahoney, narrator
Erin Wall, soprano

Again, Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times described the event. “Mahoney returned to Symphony Center Thursday night to narrate a rare performance of Beethoven’s complete incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont. Goethe’s play about a former loyalist fighting Spanish colonialism in the 16th century Netherlands was quickly forgotten, but Beethoven’s Egmont Overture has long been a concert hall staple. It was fascinating to hear it in its complete context, especially with the young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck honing in on the music’s noble bearing and expansive reach. . . . In the minimal staging devised by director Sheldon Patinkin, [Mahoney] managed to turn the obscure Egmont into a flesh-and-blood presence. With his straightforward delivery and Beethoven’s evocative music reinforcing each scene, he brought us glimpses of a brave soldier and king’s loyal administrator destroyed by political intrigue and despotism. The thirst for liberty is a recurring motif in Beethoven’s life and much of his music. Hearing the entire Egmont, the movie music of its day, was a reminder of how strongly Beethoven believed in that ideal.”

Numerous tribute have been posted online, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Timesand CNN, among others.

 

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Stern bio

Nineteen-year-old Isaac Stern first appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 11 and 12, 1940. Frederick Stock conducted an all-Sibelius program, and Stern was soloist in the Violin Concerto.

According to the Chicago Daily News, “Dr. Frederick Stock had been invited to conduct the Sibelius concert with the Helsingfors Orchestra [arranged when Stock visited Sibelius in Finland the previous summer] as a special feature of the Olympic Games.* But Finland has had to abandon peacetime pursuits and now Isaac can thank the Russian regime for both his American citizenship and the chance to play the Sibelius D minor concerto with one of the world’s great orchestras.”

“True to the topsy-turvy condition of the world we live in, while the Finns are playing havoc with the Russians, at home a Russian-born violinist, young Isaac Stern, was the sensation of Mr. Stock’s memorable Sibelius concert at Orchestra Hall last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Journal of Commerce. “[Stern] has a commanding and comprehensive technique, a bold and beautiful tone never blatant and he has an urgent intensity of projection that seems to start in his firmly planted heels and flow like fire into the hands that make his music. . . . Stock’s accompaniment was brilliant in the perceptive richness that makes so many soloists prefer him to any other conductor.”

Isaac Stern and music director designate Daniel Barenboim after the Centennial Gala concert on October 6, 1990

Isaac Stern and music director designate Daniel Barenboim after the Centennial Gala concert on October 6, 1990 (Jim Steere photo)

Over the course of the next fifty-two years, Stern was one of the Orchestra’s most frequent guests at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, and at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, performing under six music directors (Stock, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim) and a variety of guest conductors, including Fritz Busch, Andrew Davis, Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer, Josef Krips, Pierre Monteux, Eugene Ormandy, Seiji Ozawa, and Leonard Slatkin. In 1986, Stern and Yo-Yo Ma recorded Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello with Claudio Abbado for CBS.

*On July 16, 1938, a year after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, it was announced that the 1940 Summer Olympics would not be held in Tokyo, as originally scheduled. The International Olympic Committee then awarded the games to Helsinki, the runner-up city in the original bidding process. However, following the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, the Olympic Games were indefinitely suspended and did not resume until 1948.

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