The Ax and how to swing it

Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos bring star power to Wharton Center


Cellist Yo-Yo Ma loves to call it a “garage band.”

Some garage. Hey, isn’t that a 1734 Stradivarius violin between the rusty can of paint and the Big Wheels?

The superstar trio of Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos, coming to the Wharton Center on Wednesday (Jan. 31), is a rare convergence of talent, passion and — yes — garage-band spontaneity and rapport.

At the nucleus of the trio is Ax’s long musical friendship with Ma.

“Yo-Yo and I have been playing together for 53 years now,” Ax said. He’s 74; Ma is 68. “We’re like an old married couple. Leonidas is a more recent acquaintance, but we so love being with him and working with him.”

This is not a laid-back, greatest-hits retrospective. Ma is on a lifelong crusade to show the healing power of music, whether the venue is a palace in Vienna, the parking lot of a hospital under COVID lockdown, the rim of the Grand Canyon or the sands of the Kalahari Desert. Ax is a firm ally, although he likes to needle his friend now and then.

“I admire him unreservedly,” Ax said. “There’s no one more wonderful whom I can think of than Yo-Yo.”

Despite Ax’s worldwide fame and many musical accomplishments, he still practices numerous  hours a day and piles more new and difficult works into his repertoire each year.

“For me, personally, music is incredibly inspiring,” he said. “It really is my religion. The fact that it’s entertaining doesn’t take away from that.”

But the third week of December, before taking off for Europe to play with two major orchestras, Ax suffered a slight setback. After watching a few too many Jacques Pépin cooking shows, he got carried away with a mandolin — the kitchen tool, not the musical instrument.

“I was cutting eggplant with a mandolin and cut the tip of my finger,” he said. “I’m not going to be practicing for about four days now. It’s an enforced vacation.”

He used some of that downtime to share a few thoughts on his long friendship with Ma, the impetus for the current tour with the trio, his amazement at the “good fortune” he’s enjoyed in life and much more in an exclusive interview with City Pulse.

 “We’re like an old married couple,” Ax said of his decades-long musical partnership with Ma. Here, they share a bright moment at the 1971 Marlboro Music Festival.
“We’re like an old married couple,” Ax said of his decades-long musical partnership with Ma. Here, they share a bright moment at the 1971 …


2% of Oscar Peterson

In his teens, studying at the Juilliard School in New York City, Ax was a world away from the cramped apartment in Lviv, Ukraine, where he grew up with his two musical parents, both survivors of Nazi death camps.

The apartment, which they shared with another family, was a tight fit, but there was a piano in the living room nobody touched.

“In those days, in the Soviet Union, pretty much everybody took music lessons,” he said. “You just did it because that’s what you did. Some people stuck to it, and some didn’t. It’s as simple as that.”

Taught mainly by his father, beginning at age 6, Ax “stuck to it” through some major life changes. His family moved to Warsaw, Poland, when he was 7, then to Winnipeg, Canada, and finally, in 1961, to New York.

Within a few years, he excelled at Juilliard and began to make a splash at big competitions, but he doggedly denies that he was, or is, anything special. To his mind, he just “stuck with it.”

He could have rattled off a story about winning the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 1974, but instead he recalled a more recent event: a visit to his son’s first-grade classroom.

“The sheer talent you see from 6- and 7-year-olds — it’s unbelievable,” he said. “Nothing interrupts the eyes to the brain to the hand. They just do it.  And some people follow and keep doing it, and some lose interest or stop. It’s the same thing with music. I think it’s more a matter of interest and what surrounds them than talent.”

At Juilliard, Ax shared his love of music with a world of newfound friends, including a musically omnivorous cellist whose family had emigrated from war-torn China, Yo-Yo Ma.

“We were in the cafeteria — not necessarily cutting classes, but just eating lunch,” Ax said. “We just hit it off, and thank God, it continues to this day.”

Many afternoons in New York, Ax ducked out of the daylight to catch musical titans like conductor Leopold Stokowski and his American Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal.

“He was, like, 97 years old,” Ax said. “They would have rehearsals at Carnegie, and I would sometimes sneak in and listen.”

Also lurking in the wings was Stewart Warkow, then-executive director of Carnegie Hall and a close aide to Stokowski. Warkow noticed the avid young fan but didn’t toss him out.

“There was a piano in the corner, and this wonderful man said, ‘Go ahead and try it,’” Ax recalled.

He felt like a young baseball fan standing on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium.

But how do you get to Carnegie Hall for real? Ax credits a “lucky” series of teachers in Poland, Canada and New York who were not only demanding but kind — which, to his mind, is just as important.

“When you’re young, when you’re starting out, the most important thing for a teacher is to make it both serious and fun,” he said. “Teaching in general is a very special and rare talent.”

It’s been a long time since Ax had to sneak into Carnegie Hall. In April, he’ll play a solo recital there, capping off a solo tour that will take him to five cities in the Eastern U.S. At the same time, the trio of Ax, Ma and Kavakos are in a flurry of tours and recordings wrapped around their “Beethoven for Three” concept.

The idea of boiling down Beethoven symphonies into a trio format sprang from the 2020 pandemic shutdown.

“There was just nothing going on,” Ax said. “Yo-Yo and I were talking to each other every day, and he said, ‘Maybe we should try and look at doing the symphonies in small ensembles because there are no orchestras playing.’ Leonidas joined us, and we loved doing it.”

The trio’s obvious joy and turn-on-a-dime agility brings out the energy of the music in a way a large orchestra can’t.

“We definitely play spontaneously,” Ax said. “We don’t have to make as many decisions as a conductor with an orchestra, and I like the idea of not making a lot of decisions beforehand. Rehearsals are usually about trying different ways to do things. Then, in the concert, we do what we feel like at the moment.”

But he was careful to distinguish the trio’s brand of spontaneity from genuine jazz improvisation.

“I wish I had the talent of someone like Oscar Peterson,” he said, naming a jazz icon he fervently admires. “That’s a whole different level of music making and piano playing that I will never achieve. But yes, we have a little bit of spontaneity. We have 2% of Oscar Peterson!”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ax and Ma played free recitals for healthcare workers and hospital patients.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ax and Ma played free recitals for healthcare workers and hospital patients.


The gadfly

The Wharton concert is completely devoted to Beethoven, who, to Ma’s mind, is the man we need right now.

In a promotional video for the trio, Ma asserts that Beethoven’s music is “absolutely right for this present moment.”

But that’s a tough case to make, even for an artist with as much public renown and cultural capital as Ma.

Not only is Beethoven the ultimate icon of the classical establishment, he looms in the public mind as a scowling, overbearing avatar of testosterone-fueled anger.

Going back to the music, the trio rediscovered a striking saga of musical struggle and hope. True to their personalities, Ma and Ax make the case in different ways. Ma sees Beethoven’s music as a model for positive action. In the video, he says that Beethoven “got to catharsis and transcendence through physicality.”

Ax lovingly calls these kinds of statements from his old friend, now a United Nations Messenger of Peace, “pronouncements.”

In the video, Ax listens to Ma with an expression that’s hard to read.

“What we need today is that willpower to say that we can actually make a difference,” Ma continues.

“I’d love to hear the long version,” Ax remarks tartly.

Ax said it’s all in fun.

“An unfortunate trait of my personality is that I love sending Yo-Yo up,” Ax explained. “He’s a very thoughtful and inspiring person in so many ways, but I’m like the gadfly that always has to make fun. So, when he makes a pronouncement, I always feel I have to kind of puncture the balloon. It’s more a matter of comedy than anything else.”

When it comes to Beethoven, Ax said all three men are on the “same page.”

“If you want to be depressed, you listen to Mahler or Brahms or maybe Shostakovich — plenty of people,” he said. “But if you want music to give you hope, I think you always turn to Beethoven. What could be more hopeful than the Ninth Symphony?”

Bypassing Ma’s abstractions, Ax ticked off the miseries that dogged the composer all his life.

“This is a man who lost his hearing, the most important sense for a musician, who had a terrible personal life in every way,” he said. “No romantic relationship, really, that we know of, no children. Parents that were — it’s a nightmare, when you think about it.”

(Beethoven’s father was a strict disciplinarian and, later in life, an alcoholic. He considered his mother his “best friend,” but she died when he was only 16.)

“And yet, when you listen to what he wrote, it’s just — Yo-Yo and I play the third cello sonata, the A major sonata, which is one of the most beautiful, positive, open pieces in the world.”

In the hands of the duo, the very first seconds of the sonata take your blood pressure to risky levels of serenity. Not only does Beethoven catch a ray of pure sunshine with its gorgeous opening melody, he dares to ride it, wrestle it, take it apart, put it back together and bring it back unscathed, in all its pristine beauty.

“And he wrote this in 1809, in the basement of a house in Vienna during bombardments from Napoleon’s army,” Ax marveled. “That’s what Yo-Yo is talking about. The contrast between his life and the music he wrote is so inspiring.”

In their trio recordings, Ax, Ma and Kavakos ignite Beethoven’s mercurial moods with a supple, organic fire, trading phrases and flipping roles almost faster than the ear can follow. Yet almost as exciting and inspiring as their communion are the sweet little moments when playing together seems to set them free individually.

At the beginning of their trio version of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Ax bobs up with a buoyant “here I am” fanfare, but he plays it guardedly, as if he’s not sure he walked into the room with all his clothes on. When Kavakos picks up the tune on violin, Ax starts chunking like mad underneath, dressed or not, with Ma in tow. One second, he’s alone and walking on eggs; the next, he’s stomping on grapes with his pals.

“Most of the time, if you’re good friends, that’s 90% of making music together,” Ax said. “Slower or faster, louder or softer, that can all fall into place as long as you like each other. We really are very good friends, and I think that makes all of this possible to do — and such a joy.”

At 74, Ax dives happily into brand-new music, including a concerto written for him by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, premiered in San Francisco last fall.
At 74, Ax dives happily into brand-new music, including a concerto written for him by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, premiered in San Francisco …


The big lottery

With nearly all the music in the classical repertoire under his belt, Ax keeps things interesting by playing premieres and new pieces, many of which are written for him. It’s a lot of extra work to learn something new and difficult. In many cases, the music is performed once, or only a few times.

“At my age, it’s not so easy,” he said. “A few months ago, we did a new piece by Anders Hillborg.”

He modestly left out the concerto’s title, “MAX” — short for “Manny Ax.”

Audiences loved the new concerto when Ax premiered it with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony in October. Hillborg wrote the concerto as a tribute to Ax’s “exuberance and geniality,” according to the concert notes.

Ax loves the variety of sounds the piano can generate, from thundering low chords to the gentlest whisper. In the trio’s version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Ax gets to play the walrus-wobbly bass whomp at the beginning as well the chirpy piccolo trills in the final bars, and he’s clearly having a ball.

“I am not a conductor,” he said. “And to really get my hands on this wonderful music — to be able to get to know it from the inside, I guess you could say — is a special thrill.”

Hillborg’s concerto is a straight-up showcase for the pianist’s many sonic moods, with subtitles like “hard piano,” “soft piano,” “grand piano,” ascending piano” and even “toy piano” (plinky and crystalline).

“I like the piece very, very much,” Ax said. “The audience responded to it very well, and we hope that will continue in New York and Stockholm.”

From Terence Blanchard’s turbulent opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to exhilarating new music by composers like Jennifer Higdon, Joseph Schwantner and David Biedenbender at the Lansing Symphony, concert halls across the nation are popping with new music that connects with audiences.

“That’s a revolution that I have lived through,” Ax said. “When I was young, there was an emphasis on a certain type of new music — very difficult, very complicated and, in a way, very rigid. But it’s almost impossible to talk about contemporary music now because there’s so much variety. You can have things that sound absolutely straightforward, things that are complicated, multimedia — you name it, it’s happening.”

In 2012, Ax generated a memorable moment at the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks Festival in Ann Arbor by playing a meditative, soft-focus concerto by Morton Feldman that barely rose above a whisper. Along with adventurous conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Ax was clearly enjoying the process of stripping music almost down to silence.

“It was absolutely crazy stuff,” Ax said. “I’ve also known Michael for almost 50 years, and he’s been kind of a guru for me. When he tells me to do something, I do it.”

He thought back to the afternoon at the piano in Carnegie when he was 12, hearing his notes reverberate through the empty hall.

“In a lot of ways, the fantasy I had as a kid has become reality,” he said. “I was able to play with wonderful orchestras in beautiful halls, to travel, to meet wonderful musicians, to have a life with my friend Yo-Yo and, most of all, to have a very wonderful and happy family.”

An inveterate New Yorker, Ax lives there with his wife, Yoko Nozaki. They have two children, Joseph and Sarah.

 He facetiously tells journalists he has no life outside the practice room, but the weekend after he cut his finger with the mandolin, he didn’t sound bereft.

“I’ll think of something to do,” he said. “I’ll watch more Jacques Pépin videos.”

The trio devotes much of its energy to performing and recording intense, boiled-down chamber music versions of Beethoven symphonies.
The trio devotes much of its energy to performing and recording intense, boiled-down chamber music versions of Beethoven symphonies.


Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma

Jan. 31

7:30 p.m.

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing

(517) 432-2000 or 1-800-WHARTON


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