If world-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax could ask Frederic Chopin one question about one of the compositions he’ll perform at Friday’s sold-out concert in La Jolla, he would pick the Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60.
A barcarolle in music refers to the folk songs of Venetian gondoliers, with a tempo reminiscent of their rowing pace as they glide along the canal.
“There are literally thousands of questions I could come up with,” said Ax, who has won multiple Grammy Awards, both for solo CDs and for his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma.
“Obviously, a barcarolle is a type of rhythm, so if I would be limited to one question, I would ask Chopin if he really did have a story in mind and how could he possibly write this great piece without ever having been to Venice.”
The La Jolla engagement, part of the La Jolla Music Society’s Piano Series, is an all-Chopin program.
“Everything is from Chopin’s late period,” Ax explained. “The Barcarolle is new for me, but the Sonata (No. 3 in B-minor, Op. 58) and Polonaise-Fantaisie (Op. 61) I have played for a very long time, so it’s kind of a mixed bag. I tried to arrange the program in terms of assertive, quiet, assertive, quiet. These pieces are so challenging, and so interesting from many points of view, that I never get tired of doing any of it.”
Like Chopin, Ax was born in Poland.
He took piano lessons from the age of 7, and described himself “as talented like a lot of children are — but not a prodigy.”
His parents survived the Holocaust by moving to Canada.
“We moved from Poland when I was 10,” said Ax, who contributed a Chopin performance to the 2005 Emmy Award-winning BBC documentary “Holocaust — A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz.” “My mother had a fifth cousin there and that was the way to get out — you got a letter of invitation. My dad was a speech and language therapist, which at the time was a new field. In Winnipeg, there wasn’t any opportunity. So, he thought we should move to a big city like New York.”
Ax, now 72, lives in New York City with his wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary doctorates of music from Skidmore College, Yale University and Columbia University. He has performed with artists such as Cho-Liang Lin, Edgar Meyer, the late Isaac Stern and his friend of 40-plus years, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Last year, Ax and Ma recorded “Hope Amid Tears” an album of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. The duo also made a series of Grammy Award-winning recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano in the 1980s.
Did Ax make comparisons?
“Once I make a record, I don’t listen to my own stuff,” said Ax, who is known for his humility as well as his emotive renditions of classical music. “But I think the one thing we did was change a little bit, which I think is good. ‘Hope Amid Tears’ doesn’t sound like the old records and even if people don’t like it, at least it’s different.”
During the pandemic, Ma and Ax volunteered to play music for hospital patients and essential workers. The duo played outdoors on a truck bed, Ma performed with a fiberglass cello and Ax played on Clavinova piano.
Ax also performed over the phone for intensive-care patients on ventilators.
“It was the only thing we could do to really help, I’m sad to say,” Ax said. “I wish I could have done more. Everybody wanted to help in some way, and I’m a musician. There is nothing I know how to do except play. I felt happy people could get pleasure from it.”
La Jolla Music Society presents Emanuel Ax
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Tickets: Sold out
Phone: (858) 459-3728