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A Weekend in the Country

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Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

About a year ago, Emanuel Ax got an invitation he never expected. His friend Ara Guzelimian, artistic director of the Ojai Festival, wanted Ax to take on the role of music director for Ojai 1997.

The pianist was nonplused.

“Ara said they’d had John Adams, [Pierre] Boulez, people like Stravinsky, and how would I like to do the music directorship,” Ax remembers. “I said I thought he was slumming; he couldn’t find anybody better.”

Hardly. At 47, Ax is among the best known and most highly regarded musicians of his generation. Ax, winner of the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition when he was 25, tours the world earning reviews that note his “subtle, graceful pianism” and “impeccably shaped” playing.

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He has been playing duets with cellist Yo-Yo Ma for 21 years, recorded more than 20 albums and been accompanied by most of the world’s great orchestras. He has played for the soundtracks of the films “Immortal Beloved” (as Beethoven) and “Impromptu” (as Chopin). But he had never programmed a festival, nor is he, as is usual with the Ojai post, a composer or conductor.

That, Guzelimian says, is the point.

“I’ve always thought of Manny as one of the most intellectually curious musicians I know,” explains Guzelimian, who met Ax 15 years ago. “We wanted to make a very different statement in the festival’s 51st year, after Boulez as music director and the 50th anniversary [celebration]. With Boulez being such a giant, it’s very hard to top or match unless you do a shift of direction. So having a very imaginative musician who wasn’t a composer or conductor seemed like a very good way to go.”

Ax wasn’t quite convinced. Given his predecessors, he needed some time to think about it. And he had to make certain there was no conflict with his son Joseph’s high school graduation, also in June.

“He did need some coaxing,” Guzelimian says. But a week or so later, Ax signed on, as music director and headliner.

“It gives him an outlet for all his favorite things,” his longtime manager, Jenny Vogel, points out. “Putting together programs, playing chamber and orchestral music, having fun with colleagues who are also friends. I believe he also heard that there were some good wine cellars in Ojai.”

His festival programming debut, says Ax, is all about mix: “I was interested in doing something that would make sense for [each concert] and not be just a collection of pieces.”

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The colleagues Ax invited include his wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki; friends Richard Stoltzman on clarinet and Cho-Liang Lin on violin; and a relatively new acquaintance, 21-year-old British conductor Daniel Harding, who, along with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will join Ax in what he calls “some really wonderful masterpieces of the past and the present and a couple of real curiosities.”

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Music critics have sometimes called Ax “self-effacing” onstage, and it’s a trait he also demonstrates sitting in the living room of his spacious apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. With his curly hair, full face and animated way of speaking, he is genial, thoughtful, a little professorial.

He likes to explain things--to himself, to a visiting reporter or to a packed auditorium.

“When I do recitals and talk to the audience,” Ax says, “which I’m doing more and more, I’m the one that’s getting the benefit from it. I hope they are as well, but it feels good for me. I feel better--more relaxed and more connected--to be able to make contact with the people in the seats.”

Guzelimian calls him a “really interesting musical thinker,” and Ax has obviously done some thinking about the act of performance. Ideally, he says, his approach is the same whether he is playing alone, in a small ensemble or duet or with an orchestra.

“Of course,” Ax explains, “sometimes you have to play less for the cello to be heard or more to override an orchestra. Sometimes your right hand has to be more than your left, but the idea is that you’re always playing ensemble because pianists deal with polyphony. That’s what our job is: to play more than one voice at a time. We’re like a string quartet--all in one person.”

The personal side is more complicated. Pianists, he points out, perhaps best understand the meaning of solo performance:

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“Most of the time, other [performers] have company onstage, whether they play a concerto or recital or quartet. But when pianists walk out to play at a piano recital, we know we’re alone.

“You want to make a very intimate connection with people, and you want the music to make a very intimate connection,” he says. “That requires really opening yourself up. And, of course, the risk of negative response is something none of us likes.”

Yet Ax does it about 100 times a year, a number he considers high. It is also a number that keeps him away from his family. Besides 18-year-old Joseph, he and Nozaki, his wife of 23 years, have a daughter, Sarah, 13.

“I keep thinking I should do a little less, and I probably should. But when you have a new piece or important project, you need to try it out. I’d have to limit the number of pieces I do if I didn’t have the chance to play them several times. I need the time to get them in my hands and my brain, and the only way to do that is by performing them. And there are all kinds of good causes that I like to play for.”

One of Ax’s standing obligations--and joys--is his long-term collaboration with Ma. His first encounter with the cellist goes back to when they were both students--Ma a teenager at Juilliard, and Ax, in his early 20s, at Columbia, where he got a degree in French while also studying piano at Juilliard.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Ax was born in Poland and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. Then, like Ma, he studied at Juilliard in his teens. Ax and his future wife attended Ma’s New York recital debut in those days, and they were, says Ax, “completely bowled over. I remember saying to her it would be a dream come true if I got to work with him.”

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The two young men later met--in the cafeteria at Juilliard--hit it off and agreed to perform a benefit concert. After playing together a few more times, they began touring together.

“We both wanted to commit to working over a long period of time with a partner,” Ma says today, more than 20 years later. “It’s ultimately more satisfying.”

Ma says the “glue” of their collaboration is, simply, laughter.

He offers his “favorite Manny story,” which occurred around Ma’s birthday a few years ago. The cellist received in the mail a green cashmere sweater from his favorite New York store, but there was no card. Assuming it was from Ax, he dashed off a note. The next week, says Ma, he got the identical sweater in the mail with a note that read, “I hope this is the sweater you mean. Happy birthday. Love, Manny.”

Then, around Christmas a few months later, Ax went for payback. Ma received a card that read, “Dear Yo-Yo, how can I thank you? A midnight blue Saab 9000 just pulled up in front of my doorway. You are so thoughtful to think of me.”

“That’s Manny for you,” Ma says.

For Ax, the Ojai program is “kind of a nice balance.” He and Guzelimian nailed down the details, “like a tennis game,” Guzelimian says, “where you go back and forth.”

What they worked with were a handful of Ax’s enthusiasms; in particular, integrating the old and the new. Tradition will be served with plenty of Schubert in this, his bicentennial year. On Friday night, a chamber concert includes his Trio in E flat, and also a John Harbison Schubertian homage written in 1989. Mozart is combined with Schoenberg, Webern and the West Coast premiere of John Adams’ latest work, “Gnarly Buttons,” a clarinet concerto that will showcase Richard Stoltzman. An electronics and percussion piece by young Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho--Guzelimian’s suggestion--will be framed by works of Debussy and Messiaen, two composers who are among her favorites, chosen by Ax.

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Ax is a great advocate for the music he plays, especially 20th century works. In most other fields, he says, new things are praised: “There’s a new restaurant, and we’ve got to go there. If a movie is opening Friday, I want to go Thursday. In theater, it’s the hot new play. In books, the hot new novel. Somehow, we have to get more of that in music.

“What’s wonderful about new music for performers and audiences is that if the piece is good in and of itself, that’s exciting. It makes you hear things in a different way. You haven’t been told what to think, which is very liberating; you don’t know if it’s a masterpiece. Also, I think it makes us listen to old music differently.

“When you hear John Adams and you hear Beethoven’s Opus 111, you might actually make a couple of connections,” says Ax, humming a few bars of the Beethoven. “You might actually connect that with some ragtime rhythms, or you might say this is not at all like that. Both are good.”

Ax is similarly inclined to encourage new artists, like Harding, the conductor who will make his American debut at the festival. They met two years ago when Ax was scheduled to perform in Paris with Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

“[The concert] was two huge pieces--the Schoenberg piano concerto and the ‘Lied von der Erde’ of Mahler,” Ax says, “and Simon’s father got very ill. Daniel stepped in and conducted an extraordinary performance of both pieces, and he has since substituted for [Claudio] Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic. I just think he’s an exceptional talent, someone who will be a major figure in the conducting world.”

Given his music director role, why didn’t Ax program himself some conducting time at the festival? Through the years, Ojai has helped pianists like Michael Tilson Thomas develop as conductors. Joking that soon he’d be the only pianist who doesn’t conduct, Ax says, “I don’t think I have at all the personality to be a conductor. I’m completely indecisive, totally without authority and, aside from my family life, I have no desire to control things. So to me, the greatest benefit of conducting would be the aerobic exercise.”

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As usual, though, Ax has given the podium position a lot of thought.

“I do think that the most fascinating job in music today is conducting,” he says. “I love observing how they get what they want. The means are completely incomprehensible, not only to the average layman but also to someone who’s very closely involved in the performance, such as me. I don’t understand why orchestras change sound with different people on the podium.”

Ax has even begun informal interviews with conductors, looking ahead to a monograph or “little book” on the subject. He has taped Rattle and a few others, for instance, answering questions about everything from how they feel about American orchestras versus European orchestras to the importance of arm movements. Could they conduct with their eyes? Do they?

“The art of conducting is one of those subjects,” Ax says, “that the more you know about it, the more mysterious it becomes. I’m reading ‘Tour of the Calculus’ by David Berlinski, and he points out that to a lot of mathematicians, calculus can be just as mysterious as to us. I have friends who are biochemists, and it’s the same thing. There’s a mystery at the end of almost anything worth knowing.”

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