Interview with Emanuel Ax

Unofficially dubbed the nicest guy in classical music, widely-loved pianist Emanuel Ax sat down for a heart to heart conversation. We talked about his particular sound, and about what he loves in a conductor; and I learnt why he is rarely challenged by musical disagreements, and what he thinks about imagination and knowledge.

I guess I want to start by saying that as a violinist in an orchestra, I get the pleasure of hearing so many different soloists that come through. There are so many pianists and you all play on the exact same instrument, but everybody has a completely different sound. What does it mean to you, to present your sound on the piano?

Well, I’m a little bit of an apostate or iconoclast when it comes to talking about sound, period. I think that piano sound doesn’t actually mean very much. The instrument is the instrument; all we do is hit the key and the hammer hits the string. So, really the control you have in terms of creating good sound, or what one would call a good sound or the right sound for the piece, depends on how you balance a chord. You know how much attention each note in the chord gets and how prominent each note is in relation to the others – how you continue, how you go from one note to the next, and how you use the pedal. That’s really what defines our control over creating a sound. That being said, I think the thing about the piano itself, about applying a different touch to the key, is kind of pointless.

But certainly, you must have a concept in your mind or ear as to what you’d like to achieve sound-wise.

Oh, sure. But I guess what I try to do is to listen back. I think that’s probably true for most musicians. The hardest thing to do is to play and listen at the same time. You think you’re doing this when you play, but you’re actually not.

It is, in fact, the most important, but also the most difficult. One of the things that helps me a lot is taping every solo recital that I play. You think you’re playing a certain tempo, but you’re not. There’s all this stuff that goes on. So, it’s a constant learning process. I think it’s a very important thing to do…for me, at least. There are people who are better at hearing themselves, but I’m not especially good at it.

Could you describe what kind of personality your ideal conductor has?

Oh, gosh. I think there are so many. What I admire most is a conductor with a point of view. If they have a strong point of view, I can talk to them – we can either discuss things or I can fall in line with what they like. A good conductor is a good accompanist by definition. That’s not a matter of ability, it’s a matter of attitude. I like a lot of the 90-year-olds, for instance. I’ve played with Bernard Haitink a lot. I love him. I like Herbert Blomstedt and Christoph von Dohnanyi, as well.  And then there are a bunch of young ones that I like, too, like Gustavo Dudamel, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and Andris Nelsons.

Now, let’s say somebody has a very strong opinion. How do you handle disagreements?

I don’t really find myself in that position too often. I find that most of the time with the good musicians there are no issues. There are hundreds of ways of approaching the music that I play. It’s hard to find myself in disagreement with somebody who’s good, in my opinion, though it’s usually a matter of personality. If someone doesn’t like you, then they’re probably going to be unpleasant about certain things. But, if you get along personally, there should never be an issue. 

My last question is the traditional MOUNT DELA grand finale. What do you feel is more important, knowledge or fantasy?

Wow, that’s like asking, “What is the meaning of life?” Or for the blueprint to happiness. Well, I’ll try to hedge. I would say that fantasy comes from knowledge. The more you know, the more your imagination can take flight, in my opinion. I have a pianist friend who has redone the Mozart Requiem.  These types of people know everything, and because they are knowledgeable about all of these possibilities, they can imagine so many different things. In the same way, I think that the more you rehearse, the freer you can be. I think that the less rehearsal you have or the less you’ve played together, the more stuck in a straitjacket you become. People think that over-rehearsing somehow puts you in this position, but it’s the other way around.

// Benjamin Peled is a violinist in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and a member of the Alma Quartet