World-famous pianist Emanuel Ax plays sold-out concert


Jeffrey Wang/ The Daily Northwestern

Seven-time Grammy award winner Emanuel Ax performs in Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall at a performance on Wednesday. The sold-out concert finished with a standing ovation.

Jennifer Hepp, Reporter


World-famous pianist Emanuel Ax sold out Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall on Wednesday night, performing a recital consisting of impromptus, including many written by a composer from his native land — Frédéric Chopin.

Ax is a collaborator with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and this was his first time performing at Northwestern.

He was the most recent recipient of the Bienen School of Music’s Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance, an award that was established in 2005. Ax received $50,000 for this award.

Ax’s performance acts as part of the Skyline Piano Artist Series, which is now in its second year. Bienen Prof. James Giles said Ax is “certainly one of the busiest pianists in the world,” and has been for decades. What he admires most about Ax’s career is his versatility, he said.

Ax first became known as a Chopin artist and pianist who played the works of the 19th century, Giles said, but has since branched out significantly. In addition to performing works from the Classical period, Ax has also commissioned pieces by contemporary composers. He has experimented with period instruments, instruments from a historical period.

“I try to play as much of a variety as I can,” Ax said. “I do everything from Bach to yesterday. So it’s pretty much a broad range, and (I have) no special favorite, I like a lot of different things.”

Ax, who moved to the United States from Lviv, Ukraine when he was 12, is one of the most sought-after pianists in the musical world. Earlier this year, Ax performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and gave the world premiere of a new piano concerto in January with the New York Philharmonic.

Giles said the award is one of the most prestigious prizes in the piano world. For an artist to win this award, the person has to be selected by Bienen — they cannot apply for it.

“The recipients of this award are all some of the top pianists in the entire world who have achieved international renown and who have been very influential as musicians for many years,” Giles said.

Ax began the concert with a series of four impromptus, which are free-form musical compositions, by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Schubert, two Romantic era composers. Ax also performed a contemporary impromptu titled “After Schubert” composed by Samuel Adams, who is the son of John Adams. Samuel Adams has strong roots as a composer in minimalism, a style of music that uses simple elements, often with great use of repetition.

Bienen sophomore Derek Hartman served as Ax’s page turner for Ax’s performance of the Adams impromptu.

“(The performance) was very imaginative, polished, and it really had a lot of contrast,” Hartman said. “(Ax) has an unbelievably mature understanding of Chopin and improvisatory style, which is perfect for the impromptus.”

After finishing the final piece of the program, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Ax followed with two encores and finished to an immediate standing ovation.

“We are able to offer the students, the university and the citizens of the North Shore an opportunity to hear a great pianist without having to drive downtown and fight traffic and pay for parking,” Giles said. “We bring the pianist right to campus and we have a beautiful hall, gorgeous pianos, so we really offer a world class environment for these world class artists.”

This story was updated to clarify that Lviv is located in present-day Ukraine.

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