Emanuel Ax (born 1949), American pianist, winner of the first Artur Rubinstein International Piano Competition, became a major contemporary intetpreter of the traditional piano literature who was also willing to explore serious new compositions for the piano.
Emanuel Ax was born in Lwow, eastern Poland in 1949. His father, a coach at the Lwow Opera House, was the pianist's first teacher. Ax commenced his study of the piano when he was seven years old. One year later his family moved to Warsaw, and soon after, having secured exit visas, they emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, where they had relatives. In 1961, after a year and a half in Canada, the family moved once more, this time to New York City. Emanuel Ax, then 11 years old, enrolled in the Pre-College Division at Juilliard. His only formal piano teacher at Juilliard was Mieczslaw Munz, with whom he studied for four years, eventually winning the Young Concert Artists' Michaels Award, among other honors. He majored in French at Columbia University.
In 1969, Ax toured Latin America. In 1970, he entered the Chopin contest in Warsaw, and came in seventh place. Continuing difficulties during this phase of his career included placing third in the Viaμnna da Motta competition in Lisbon in 1971 and undistinguished recognition in the Queen Elizabeth Contest in Brussels in 1972. Despite this, Ax persisted and achieved a decisive breakthrough at the first Artur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1974.
Rubinstein cultivated his young protegé, counseling him, occasionally soliciting his advice, and in general treating him as a fellow artist. In 1979, Ax won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize.
Ax became one of the most sought-after concert performers of this period. He often played chamber music at summer events in Aspen, Colorado, and maintained an extremely active schedule, giving as many as 90 concerts a year. He performed with virtually every major orchestra in eastern and western Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Asia. He has compiled an extensive and essential contemporary discography. In addition to his solo recordings, he has numerous releases with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with whom Ax claimed to have a special musical rapport over the past 20 years. He has also won Grammy Awards.
Ax's expertise was concentrated on the standard piano literature, the Romantic and Classical repertoire cultivated by such pianists as Artur Rubinstein, among others. Ax did not limit himself exclusively to this piano literature, but it was his mainstay. In 1984, he performed Hans Werner Henze's Tristan (1974) with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic. Ax explored current literature to uncover little known works he could present to the listening public, but he required that they be accessible to his particular expertise and audience. More characteristically perhaps, he presented compositions from the Romantic and Classical periods, for example the Années de P'erinage of Liszt, and he had an intellectual's grasp, as well as an artist's, of the details in the standard piano repertoire.
When learning a new composition, he focused his attention not exclusively upon the score, but read the scholarly secondary source literature including music criticism, biography, and history. At the same time, he was moving away from the keyboard, thus bringing a combined technical acumen and intuitive grasp to the individual work. Ax felt his primary responsibility to be communication with his audience, providing them with a serious experience that would enliven their grasp of the music, its composer, and the tradition in which both could be found.
Further Reading on Emanuel Ax
Ax is discussed briefly in Baker's Biographical Dictionary, 6th ed. (1978). His concerts and recordings have been reviewed in all major newspapers and music journals. The pianist himself is the subject of the following articles: "Who wants to be another Horowitz?" S. Clark, Village Voice 23 (March 20, 1978); "Emanuel Ax," interview with A. Kozinn, Fugue 4 (November 1979); "Time Off with Emanuel Ax," interview with L.P. Yost, Clavier 19 (1980); "Casual Conversation with a Touring Virtuoso," Paul Hertelendy, Contemporary Keyboard (February 1980); "An Interview with Emanuel Ax," D. Manildi, American Record 45 (January-February 1982); "Emanuel Ax Goes 20th Century," Allan Kozinn, Keynote (July 1984); "Pianist Emanuel Ax: An Adventurous Virtuoso, "Karen Monson, Ovation (April 1985).
Other articles on Ax include: "Classical Keeping Score, "Billboard (February 24, 1996) and "Ax & Ma: Duo Extraordinary," Musical America (May 1990).