Emanuel Ax (who likes to be called “Manny”) has been in our
midst quite a lot this season, to our great pleasure and, I hope, his. At the
Disney Hall first-night gala he turned up with five pianist buddies, in a piece
too ludicrous to write about seriously but great fun nevertheless: the multicomposer,
multiperformer piano escapade called Hexaméron cooked up by Franz Liszt
and his pals in a frenzy of romantic hubris. Then he was back with sterner stuff,
Beethoven cello sonatas with Yo-Yo Ma at Royce Hall. This month he has been practically
living at Disney: in some rare and better-forgotten early Debussy with the Philharmonic,
in a chamber concert with orchestra members, and in more Debussy — ravishing,
this time — in last week’s Green Umbrella. He returns on March 23, with Yefim
Bronfman in a two-piano program that includes even more Debussy, the wonderful
and rarely heard suite En Blanc et Noir.
I would not have typed Manny Ax, this outgoing, chunky, Polish-born woolly bear, as a performer of Debussy. When I was asked to do notes for his early recordings I was bowled over by his larger-than-life Chopin, and that’s where I thought he was going. Now he is one of the most loving and considerate of all chamber-music participants, and his Debussy these past couple of weeks has been full of the soft lights and shades and half-tones that I remember from one or two Walter Gieseking recitals during my student year in Paris and from not many people since. He even brought this superb coloristic command to a piece that didn’t deserve it, the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra that Debussy scribbled down during his student days — formula music more suggestive of a second-rate Chausson, say, than of the composer who would soon thereafter rise to Afternoon of a Faun, his very next work. The Umbrella program bore that overused-of-late imprint: not just a “concert” but a “project” — Debussy, as with the recent Tristan, enthroned among the music he may (or may not) have made happen. Project or no, the three sonatas that were Debussy’s final works make a fascinating statement when heard together: wise, reflective, sardonic now and then, not a wasted note. All are differently scored, so they don’t often get programmed together; this was a rare and welcome chance. The piece for flute, viola and harp might be a bit of sea mist left over from La Mer; the Cello Sonata has some of Debussy’s longtime regard for African and Asian rhythms; the Violin Sonata, best and best-known of the three and Debussy’s last completed work, tells me something new, profound and witty on every hearing. Interspersed were two new works over which Debussy’s shadows occasionally play: haunting, dark music for low strings and piano in a trio by Kaija Saariaho, and a Steven Stucky sonata for oboe, horn and harpsichord — a nice companion to the elegant piece for recorder he gave us a couple of years ago, which I long to hear again. To name the participants in this exceptionally euphoric concert would be to reproduce a large chunk of the Philharmonic roster; better to say that everyone involved — including Manny Ax on both piano and, despite his cute and surely unmeant protest, harpsichord — made the capacity crowd at Disney Hall most of all aware of and, apparently, happy at the splendor of the music itself. MEANWHILE . . . So many concerts, so little space. It was understandable that David Daniels, the excellent countertenor, might try to climb out of the limited repertory of Handelian warriors and make his way in a wider world, but there were things wrong at his Royce Hall recital early this month that were matters not of musical ability but of judgment. His choice of Martin Katz as accompanist was certainly wise; Katz has a particularly distinguished career with singers in Daniels’ range (Marilyn Horne, Janet Baker). But Daniels, for all the beauty of his tone, lacks their carrying power, and he was outshouted all evening by Katz’s 9-foot grand piano resounding on the Royce Hall stage. In more intimate circumstances, the fact of Daniels’ attempt to move into later kinds of music — romantic songs, mildly contemporary stuff — might have seemed less out of place. This time, however, nothing worked. Over at the County Museum, the EAR Unit concert originally scheduled for January 10, wiped out on that date by mudslides, finally dug itself out four weeks later, sort of. What I mean is, the music got played, but it didn’t completely dig itself out. David Lang’s 40-ish-minute piece called Child remained buried in self-deprecating program notes (“overly subtle,” “more interesting”). Steven Mosko’s J came along with an elaborate dissertation on a druid alphabet whose letters relate to members of the EAR Unit. Only the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür sent along some words that placed his musical thinking anywhere in the scheme of things. “I am very interested in a combination of opposites,” wrote Mr. Tüür, “especially in the way they change from one to another.” And so are we all. Verbiage aside, it was one of those lively, enterprising EAR Unit concerts, sparked by the ongoing sense that these people are really driven by a joy in what they do. Lang remains an enigma or, if you will, something of a brat; he has a way of preying on one’s patience, and this new (2003) work surely does that. Then there is a turn, a percussion moment, an elegiac line for cello, and you know that you’re in the presence of a composer. “Lucky” Mosko the same, except for the brat part; his piece, which also dates from 2003, is serious, well constructed, not a moment too long. And in the Architectonics VII of Tüür, alas, I heard nothing but what his note promised: opposites changing. Maybe there’s something in this program-note stuff after all. The last Chamber Orchestra concert began with a Haydn symphony (No. 96), music which Jeffrey Kahane conducts as well as anyone around. Then David Finckel, sometimes of the Emerson Quartet, played the bejesus out of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto — extraordinary, angry, sardonic music that raises every hair on the back of your neck and which Finckel plays as if it does the same for him. Finally came weak tea: the Beethoven “Triple” Concerto, with Finckel’s wife, Wu Han, at the piano and LACO violinist Margaret Batjer. I thought, maybe out of kindness to Beethoven they could have reversed the order. Then I thought, after that performance of the Shostakovich I’d probably have had to go out and kick somebody, and so would we all.

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