It’s always a treat to witness virtuosity, and Emanuel Ax’s performance with the Ann Arbor Symphony last Friday night was certainly no exception.
Mr. Ax’s performance of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 was, in addition to being both bold and musically sensitive, was technically pristine. The piece opens with a serene conversation between solo horn and the piano, with woodwinds and then strings joining. Soon, however, the placid part in the piano transitions into a churning display of technical skill – and there couldn’t be a better vehicle to display Mr. Ax’s skill. In my opinion, the truest measure of his piano-playing prowess was his ability to play the most arduous technical passages without sacrificing even the slightest bit of musicality or sense of ease. I can assure you that last Friday, no notes were pounded out of the piano in Hill Auditorium – each note was given its due and the treatment it deserved, no matter how many notes were surrounding it.
The solo cello at the start of the slow third movement, Andante was also one of the piece’s most beautiful movements. The audience, as it turned out, agreed with this point, and Mr. Ax, along with principal cellist Caroline Kim, were called back for an encore duet together after several standing ovations at the piece’s conclusion.
Besides the Brahms concerto, the Ann Arbor Symphony also performed Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland and Dances of Galánta by Zoltán Kodály. I was particularly excited for the performance of Appalachian Spring. While the piece was originally written in 1944 for chamber orchestra for a ballet for Martha Graham, Copland wrote an eight-sectioned suite one year later for orchestra based on the original version. It isn’t hard to imagine a world waking up from the icy frost of winter in the piece’s sparsely orchestrated introduction (in the ballet, the introduction introduces each of the characters). Starting with just solo clarinet, more wind instruments gradually join in, until the audience is left with, once again, only the clarinet. Then, suddenly, the piece bursts forth. Later in the piece, if you are familiar with the song “Simple Gifts,” you’ll recognize this theme in the piece’s seventh section.
Despite my love for the piece Appalachian Spring, however, I still would have to say that Emanuel Ax’s performance of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in the second half of the program was unequivocally the highlight of the evening.