Saturday, October 11, 2008

Emanuel Ax and the Art of Programming

The famous pianist Emanuel Ax (above right) is playing a pair of obscure musical works this week at the San Francisco Symphony, with Peter Oundjian (above left) from the Toronto Symphony conducting, and they are both sensational performances of wonderful music.

I went to the Friday evening "6.5 Series" for the first time, where the performance starts at 6:30 PM and they cut the usual program down by a third or a quarter so people can get home or to nearby restaurants for dinner. In this case, it was Mozart's "Magic Flute" overture that was thrown overboard and in truth they could have thrown out Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" overture too, which ended the program. As the program notes stated, "the composer later found the piece 'extremely cold, false, and weak,' " and who am I to contradict Tchaikovsky whose music I usually love?

The first piano and orchestra piece was by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), who is a cultish favorite of people like conductor Simon Rattle, and whose music I'd never heard before. The "Symphony No. 4" or "Symphonie concertante for Piano and Orchestra," depending on how it's billed, is one of the composer's final works and it has the sound of everybody from Carl Nielsen to Bartok in it, but the voice is definitely its own, and the wonderful performance made me want to go to Amoeba Records on a Szymanowski buying spree. The second piece was an early Richard Strauss piano and orchestra "Burleske" that the pianist obviously loved because he alternately caressed and pounded the music in a completely winning performance.

I was invited to do a short interview with Ax after his rehearsal with the orchestra on Wednesday afternoon, which was even more fun than the concert because I got to listen to the music come together, and everyone was very relaxed, particularly the soloist in his tennis shoes. I thanked him for bringing the obscure Szymanowski piece to San Francisco, and asked how long he'd been playing the composer's music. It turns out that this was only his second performance of the piece and the first Szymanowski he's ever attempted. Also somewhere in the pipeline are two pieces being written for him by the Austrian composer H.K. Gruber and the New Jersey/SoCal composer Stephen Hartke.

My final question was "Why is your hometown New York Philharmonic Orchestra so conservative in its programming?" I'd just read a very funny basting of the New York Philharmonic's opening night (and season-long) programming at the young composer Nico Muhly's blog (click here) in cahoots with the New York publicist Amanda Ameer (click here for "Life's a Pitch").

Mr. Ax immediately stood up gallantly and forcefully for his hometown band, "That's a mischaracterization fostered by the New York press which have been trashing the New York Philharmonic for decades. Everybody loves Bernstein now but you should go back and read the reviews of Harold Schoenberg in the Times, when he'd write the most horrible things, week after week. The New York Philharmonic programs as much new and adventurous stuff as any other orchestra. I'm going to be doing this same pair of pieces there in January."

I'd recommend all my New York readers to check out the concerts (click here for the ticket site), even though the two interesting pieces are bracketed by the Brandenberg Concerto #2 and the Moussorgsky/Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" which are as ridiculous as the "Magic Flute" and "Francesca da Rimini" as companion pieces. I also checked out the entire New York Philharmonic season online and I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with Mr. Ax's assessment. Their season, with Lorin Maazel in his final year, is so overwhelmingly dull that it makes the San Francisco and Toronto Symphony seasons look like wild, forward-looking, outrageous affairs, which they really are not.

Let's hope the new young music director, Alan Gilbert, brings the New York Philharmonic into the 21st century next year. Emanuel Ax certainly looks up for it.


jolene said...

I get the feeling that Ax is being cautious not to bite the hand that feeds him. Also his tastes clearly aren't aggressively progressive and lean more on the conservative side, although it's great that he brought the Szymanowski piece to life.

I'm sure there's still a large faction that feels NY Phil programming is just fine, including I'm guessing older donors and apparently Mr. Ax.

A big hooray for liberal media that continues to trash the NY Phil. I've heard some not-so-flattering things about the NY Phil from concertgoers, so it's not just the press that's saying such things.

Civic Center said...

Dear jolene: Emanuel Ax's defense of the New York Phil programming felt more sincere than cautious, but I really was surprised at how conservative this season's program was on their website. Ax is holding up his part, at least, by playing a wide range of music, including new music like John Adams' "Century Rolls" and others.

Unknown said...

I rather liked the Tchaikovsky, myself. I missed the point of the Burleske, because I missed the fact that was written as a satire of Romantic music.

I too have been reading Nico Muhly & Amanda Ameer, and in that vein, I found the program oddly unbalanced.