In the light of genius at the piano

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By Claire Dietz

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The celebrated pianist Emanuel Ax first performed at Hancher in 1974, and now, a little over four decades — and a brand new building — later, the pianist is returning to the lauded venue’s stage.

At 7:30 p.m. today, Ax will perform selections from Schubert and Chopin at Hancher.

Including his shows in 1974 and 2016, Ax has performed nine times at Hancher. He’s taken the stage solo and with a variety of other collaborators, including world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Cleveland Quartet, and the Brandenburg Ensemble. This year’s performance, however, will mark the first time for Ax to return to Hancher since 1999.

This concert has an additional layer of significance for both the pianist and the venue, seeing as Ax was instrumental in picking out the new Hancher’s defining instrument: its piano.

“In 2015, Ax joined a delegation from Hancher and West Music at the Steinway & Sons factory in New York City,” said Rob Cline, director of marketing and communications for Hancher. “The trip was sparked by a generous gift from Richard Gloss and Hal Ide — longtime and recently retired members of the Hancher Box Office staff — to support the purchase of a piano for the new Hancher Auditorium.”

In addition to this, though Ax didn’t provide any formal contributions to the buildings design, Cline noted that he played an instrumental role as a spiritual guide for the project.

Ax’s history with his craft is a long but straightforward one, and one that he described in an interview with Clive Paget in Limelight Magazine.

When asked what his origin story as a pianist was, he responded plainly.

“That’s a very simple and unexciting story,” Ax said in the interview. “In those days a lot of people had little pianos, just small uprights. I was 7 years old, and I started like everyone else.”

This matter-of-fact attitude seems to have played out well for him over the course of his career. In another interview, it became clearer that perhaps it simply in Ax’s way of life to embrace the opportunities presented to him, simply because he cannot turn them down.

“I’m not good at saying ‘No’ to things,” Ax said in an interview with Kile Smith of WRTI. “If people suggest something or they ask me to do something, I don’t usually say ‘No,’ so I wind up doing all kinds of things that I may not have intended to do, but there have been very few things that I would say I wish I hadn’t said ‘Yes’ to this.”

As a pianist, Ax is particularly known for saying “yes” to the work of composers like Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, and there is a reason he returns to them again and again.

“For a pianist [their work] probably the most challenging, the most interesting and the most multifaceted music,” he said in the Limelight Magazine interview. “There are a hundred ways to play it and I suppose as you grow up you never get tired of re-studying and trying to get better. Also, I try to play what I feel I can contribute something to.” 

“For example,” he continued. “I love Russian music; I love Rachmaninov; I love Prokofiev; I love Shostakovich. But I play almost none of that music because I don’t feel that I’m very good at it. So I like to listen to other pianists play it.”

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