Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Ax Man Cometh

November 14, 2006

One of the tactics the LA Phil has been using in the last several years to attract audiences is extended artistic "residencies." A particular performer of some notoriety will come to LA and play in a variety of different kinds of subscription events (usually at least one chamber music show and at least one regular weekend show with the whole Philharmonic) over the course of two or three weeks. In recent years they have had great success with this format with both Leif Ove Andsnes and Thomas Adès who will again return this year. In recent weeks, the Phil's resident guest performer has been the great Emanuel Ax who has been doing a lot of heavy lifting around the WDCH in programs focused almost exclusively on the work of Mozart and Strauss. In some ways, the most refreshing thing about these shows is hearing a relative "old-hand" and his mastery of this material. In a piano world overrun with numerous young lions like Leif Ove Andsnes, Paul Lewis, Hélène Grimaud, Ingrid Fliter, and Piotr Anderszewski, its easy to lose sight sometimes of the Brendels and Uchidas. But if these last few weeks have proven anything, it has shown beyond a doubt that Ax has one important quality in common with the Mozart and Strauss pieces he has played: adaptability. Just as Mozart's music has an unblinking ability to stand up to a variety of different performance techniques and interpretations over the centuries and still shine like a diamond, Ax has withstood some often not-so-great companions in his time in LA, and he has persevered above them all.
Photo: J Henry Fair

Things started off rocky on October the 24th when Mr. Ax participated in a program with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This program included the Cosi overture and Symphony No. 35 as well as the 17 th (K.453) and 25th (K.502) Piano Concertos. Ax put up a good fight, but the lack of a conductor proved a clear deficit in this case as the orchestra (which I have certainly loved in other settings) showed no break in their resolve to win what they perceived to be a battle. Ax tried his hardest to either play along or give some leadership but Orpheus wouldn't have it either way. Around this time Mr. Ax did a "celebrity" recital with his long-time friend Yo-Yo Ma which I skipped out on given that the audience excitability factor was going to make this evening a bit more than even I could tolerate.

Things picked up over that weekend, though, in the programs over October 27th through the 29th where Ax played Mozart's 9th piano concerto (K.271) on a program that included the Don Giovanni Overture and two orchestral works by Richard Strauss, the Serenade and the Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Alan Gilbert was the conductor and proved the most apt in rallying the Philharmonic to a strong but appropriately light-of-touch performance in the Mozart. Gilbert's time in Santa Fe is already paying off in his Strauss interpretations and the rest of the program was excellent.

The next go round with the Phil would take place over the November 10-12th weekend, this time with Alexander Mikelthwate, the previous Assistant and now Associate conductor. Mikelthwate is a young man with many musical talents but this reading of Mozart's 22nd piano concerto (K.482) left poor Mr. Ax hanging in the wind with little support in a rather listless and underdriven performance. The Strauss quasi-piano concerto Berleske fared much better as did the performance of Ein Heldenleben.

To wrap up this series, the Philharmonic presented a three hour chamber music program where Mr. Ax got to pair up with a variety of different individual players. The program kicked off with a presentation of a spoken-word melodrama with musical accompaniment, Enoch Arden, based on the Tennyson poem. The spoken portion was performed by Patrick Stewart of all people. Stewart is a fine actor, but his performance this night was definitely frazzled with bits of forgotten text and coughing. This is not the first time the LA Philharmonic has delivered Hollywood actors in performance (the most recent memorable one was Holland Taylor performing the spoken role of the scribe in Glass' Akhnaten). Arden is certainly a Victorian entertainment through and through, often leaving a modern audience bemused, but the music is lovely and well worth hearing. The rest of the program was less tied to a particular era and featured Mozart's Violin Sonata in C major and Piano Quartet in E-flat major as well as Strauss' Sextet from Capriccio and the Cello Sonata in F major. The highlight here was the impassioned performance of the Philharmonic's principal cellist Peter Stumpf, a long-time favorite of mine. At last Mr. Ax was paired up with a performer worth his mettle and the results were immediately apparent to everyone.

So here's wishing you well Mr. Ax and come back soon. Next time maybe we can muster up some stronger support for your wonderful playing.

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