Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews October 09, 2017

"Mozart gives me something new each time" - interview with Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax, one of the world’s greatest pianists doesn’t think himself to be especially talented. When he was seven, with his family he had to leave his hometown Lvov, where he never returned. This year he plans to visit the place. He is an old friend of Iván Fischer and the BFO, he loves contemporary music and the newest “gadgets”. On 19, 20 and 21 October he will perform Mozart’s piano concerto in D minor with the BFO in Budapest. Before that they play the program first on six different stages in Europe.

Mozart’s concerto in D minor is a kind of melancholic, somewhat depressive, so to say sad masterpiece. How do you feel about that composition?

Emanuel Ax: I think it’s very similar to the opera Don Giovanni. So if I am listening to the opera and make the same impression by playing the concerto, I am very happy.

I am sure, you know that Iván Fischer just recently staged Don Giovanni.

E.A.: Of course, I know that, but unfortunately, I was not in New York when he performed it, but as I heard and read it was a really great success. A very important event, the big success of the year in New York. I am really sorry I couldn’t see it.

Could you explain what is the similarity between the opera and the concerto? What shall we know about the background of their connection?

E.A.: Well, I am not so familiar with the history of the connection. But there are more connecting points. Of course both are written in D minor and there are a lot of similar parts. I am sure Mozart must have had Don Giovanni in his brain already when he composed the concerto. I am looking forward so much to learning from Iván Fischer about the secret behind it, and about how we should play that piece. Therefore I can’t wait to start rehearsing with him.

This sounds great! You have been practicing your piano career since the same time as Iván Fischer did his conducting. Can you still learn from each other?

E.A.: He is a great artist. I have known him for a long time and I admire him a lot. I am sure I will do most of the learning as it is true for each time we meet.

You have been a well-known artist since a very long time, you have given great concerts all of your life. How is it, when you play e.g. Mozart over and over again, can you recognize anything new when you get to practice a piece of him?

E.A.: It might sound funny, but Mozart for me gives each time something new. Of course I feel the piano pieces the closest to myself. I don’t know exactly what happens to me, but often I feel like this or that piece I never played before, even if I know, I did. It gives me new feelings. It is obvious that any new orchestra and conductor gives to it some new ideas, the emphasis is on different parts, or the atmosphere of the whole music is different. I do not mean that one time the concerto sounds happy, another time it is tragic, but there are many tiny things which may cause a different feeling when you listen to the music.

In the D minor concerto it is interesting that in the last movement Mozart changed the D minor to D major. Why do you think he did this?

E.A.: He didn’t want to end on a very sad note. Exactly as in the Don Giovanni. The only piece of Mozart I know which ends sad is the concerto in C minor. This leaves us in a sad mood. I don’t know the background, it would be great to be able to ask the composer.

I know, you were born in a very special East-European city, Lvov (Lemberg at that time) in the Ukraine. Did you visit this city since?

E.A.: No, unfortunately I haven’t been back since I was 7 years old, but I am planning to visit Lvov in November this year. I am very excited about going back.

How much do you think one can preserve the seeds he or she bears in himself from the childhood’s place, where he was born? Do you remember of anything from that Ukrainian city, or Poland where you moved later?

E.A.: I am sure the place where one was spending his first years stays deeply in his soul. But even more important is in my opinion the language. I speak Polish still fluent, and my Russian is not bad either. I look back to my childhood as to a very nice time. I was a happy kid, as I of course was not aware of the difficulties of my parents' life at that time. But with my parents we lived in general a happy life.

Despite the fact that you had to leave your hometown, and later Poland as well when you moved to a third place in Canada. This must have been a hard time for your parents.

E.A.: Yes, for my parents it was rather difficult, but for me it was not bad at all. I was too young to realize what was the reason behind the decisions. The languages came very effortlessly as my brain was open at that early age. And to acknowledge the level of technology when we came to Canada, what I never experienced before in Russia and Poland, that was amazing. I loved everything about it. And I must confess, I still love all the newly coming technical “gadgets”, like iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc. All these things I love the same way as when I was ten.

When did it turn out that you were a musically talented little boy?

E.A.: I don’t think it turned out so definitely that I was more talented than my classmates. I just enjoyed learning to play music as other kids did as well. May be I did enjoy it a little more. Don’t think of me being a Wunderkind. Most of the children at that age with 7-8 years played an instrument. Than later it turned out that I am not good in anything else, so I stayed by the music.

When you moved from Winnipeg, Canada to New York city it must have been a big change for you. How do you remember those days?

E.A.: That was a real cultural shock for me. As we moved from a small city to a really big one, one of the biggest in the world. That was an important change in my life. I was 12 and as we lived close to the Carnegie Hall, we went to see a lot of concerts. I love to think back of that period, it was really wonderful.

As far as I know you are especially interested in contemporary music. Do you play many of those pieces too?

E.AI am very interested in how the young composers think, what is important for them. I wish I could play more of their music, but unfortunately I learn very slow, therefore I can only play a few. It takes me several months to learn a piece well.

Why is it so? What do you think?

E.A.: Because as I said already, I am not talented enough.

I don’t think you really mean it!!

E.A.: I do mean it. This is the truth. To play Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart is not a big deal, as those pieces have been in my head for so long time, I do not have to do much to learn them. But a new piece you have to start from zero. It means you have to monkey around with it a lot. Of course to play a new piece means a lot fun at the same time, and as only a few performers have played them yet, the critics cannot measure the difference of good or bad performance. So it means less nervous moments.

Do I know well that you teach beside performing?

E.A.: Yes, I have some students, among them I teach a wonderful Hungarian musician, who got to me through Iván Fischer. He proposed him to find me as his teacher. His parents live in Budapest, his home now is Georgia, but he wants to move to the US. He is very talented, it is a feast to teach him, as I learn at least as much from him as he learns from me.

Before the Budapest concert with the BFO you travel with the orchestra on a longer tour. Do you like to travel with them?

Oh, I love to be with them as well in the concerts as on tour. I can’t wait to meat Iván and his marvellous orchestra!