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Austin Symphony Orchestra With Emanuel Ax

The music made by the ASO and its guest pianist too often sounded disconnected

Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., Jan. 20, 2012

Emanuel Ax
Emanuel Ax

Austin Symphony Orchestra With Emanuel Ax

Dell Hall at the Long Center
Jan. 14

Yo-Yo Ma. Itzhak Perlman. Yefim Bronfman. This is the company kept by Emanuel Ax. Throughout his extraordinary career, the Ukrainian pianist has not only performed with the most esteemed of colleagues: he's played the coveted stages, premiered works by composers such as John Adams and Krzysztof Penderecki (to name just two), been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received honorary doctorates from both Yale and Columbia. This weekend, it was Austin audiences who experienced his performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra.

Ax performed both works with technical rigor to spare. The structural architecture of the Beethoven was finely delineated, as were the fleeting gestures of Szymanowski. The artist's impressive ability to elucidate massive fistfuls of notes was at all times evident and palpable. Yet both works – and especially the Beethoven – unhappily yielded a strong air of compartmentalization. Both within the orchestra and between orchestra and soloist existed a sense of "you play this, now you play this, followed by you playing this," as opposed to weaving together an inseparable, whole tapestry. Instead of dovetailing from instrument to instrument between short phrases and motivic figures or evoking occasional call-and-response sentiments across the orchestra, it sounded as if little attention had been paid to the give-and-take of symphonic collaboration. By extension, Ax's work at times felt musically distanced from the orchestra (both in terms of interpretation and balance), though solid in the soloistic qualities of its virtuosity.

Somewhat ironically, it was the work on the program with perhaps the least fanfare that left the most indelible mark: Elgar's "Nimrod" variation. The short (and most famous) movement of the Enigma Variations was performed in tribute to ASO Assistant Concertmaster Jennifer Bourianoff, who passed away of pneumonia last month at the age of 41. Though one hears extensively melodramatic interpretations of "Nimrod" all too often via its inclusion on every "Greatest Hits of Classical Music" compilation, this rendition was different. Peter Bay led an assured, hopeful version that never reached the unnecessarily bombastic proportions one often hears at the work's climax. Instead, this was a meditation, and it transcended. In fact, it may be my favorite interpretation of this monumental Elgar work that I've ever experienced, as it treated the piece with utmost dignity, fitting for the respects the orchestra offered its colleague and friend. The decrescendo with which the work beautifully fades was followed by a moment of silence and subsequent applause from the orchestra and audience alike, in honor both of Bourianoff and her relatives, who attended. These opening 10 minutes of Saturday evening's concert were, for me, the most heartfelt and transporting.

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