Veteran concert pianist Emanuel Ax is world-renowned, has won eight Grammys and teaches at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York. He is, and long has been, a very big deal in the classical realm.
Yet here is how Ax, who goes by Manny, describes himself: “I’m a middlingly talented guy who’s kept at it for a while. And sometimes I do good concerts. I know a lot of people who are much more gifted than I am.”
In a conversation before his April 2 recital at Symphony Center, where he’ll play a mostly Schubert program (including the celebrated Sonata in B-flat Major), Ax’s well-established modesty and humility were on full display.
“I learned the B-flat sonata a long time ago but never really played it very much,” Ax said. “So it’s kind of a new process for me. And I’m very excited about doing it. I always wanted to play it [in concert], and I’m getting very old, so it’s time. Otherwise, I won't do it. And [Schubert’s] A major sonata is such a glorious, amazing piece. So it’s a wonderful program; I’m only worried about the playing.”
Despite Ax’s penchant for self-deprecation and underplaying his own talent, he claims to be at peace with whatever happens while he’s performing — good, bad or in between. “Sometimes you’re not very happy with the way you performed on a given day,” Ax said. “But I’m usually OK with it. I try to keep a certain standard. And once in a while, I’m very happy. You take it as it comes.”
Never one for pianistic acrobatics or other look-at-me antics, Ax lets the music speak for itself. Here is how one critic, writing about Ax’s recent Schubert performance at Walt Disney Hall, described the pianist’s approach: “The performance is never about him; it is always about the music. His humility comes across not only in his words, but in his performances. He bows as if he’s embarrassed that he’s getting so much attention.”
Now 73, Ax still practices four hours a day and takes nothing for granted, least of all that he can still perform at the highest level. Even so, he’s not thrilled by how time has affected his playing. “Especially at my age, it’s very frustrating, because now I’m just going downhill,” he said without a hint of irony. “I never got to the point where I’d like to be, and now I’m on the way down.”
It’s a comically dire way of saying he has never lived up to his own sky-high expectations. But where his motor skills may be less sharp than they once were, other abilities have improved. “I think sometimes you get better just by doing things for a long time,” Ax said. “I find certain things in the Beethoven and Brahms concertos easier to play now than I used to, just because I’ve done it so often and so long and practiced so hard over the years. But just the sheer energy or velocity, you lose a little bit of that.”
He added, “And I’m probably losing my mind as well.”
If that’s the case, it’s not apparent onstage. As the Walt Disney Hall critic wrote, Ax “held spellbound a packed hall of devout fans.”
And here’s another critic, assessing Ax’s Schubert program in mid-January in Palm Beach: “Ax’s voicing was superb, and his approach to rubato was discreet and to the point. His straightforwardness brought clarity to Schubert’s unique handling of sonata form.”
Such a sad “downhill” slide. Others should be so fortunate.
Note: Ax returns to Chicago for a Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music recital June 4 with the Emerson String Quartet.