Last night was one of those evenings that makes me happy to live in New York. After a frustrating day spent waiting four hours for a mover to come take my Castro Convertible and deliver it to it's new owner (beware the Craigslist, friends!), I ventured into the city for the People's Symphony Concert at Washington Irving High School. The auditorium was the fullest I've ever seen, and G.A. ticketholders were sent to the reserved seating balcony.
The draw: a piano recital by Emanuel Ax, playing Schubert and Beethoven. In addition to being one of the leading pianists of his generation, Manny - which is what everyone calls him - is one of the warmest, most generous musicians I've ever met. He spoke for over an hour at the ASOL Essentials In Orchestra Management seminar I attended in 2004, where he told several funny stories about the not-so-glamorous life of a concert soloist while munching on a turkey sandwich. Wherever he appears, he makes sure that the local administrators know he's available for any and all public appearances, especially if they have to do with education and outreach. "You have me for the entire time I'm in town," he said. "Use it." He also said that he loves new music (John Adams' Century Rolls was written for him), and tries to learn at least one new concerto each year, so that he has 8-10 prepared at any given time (vs. the one or two most soloists offer.)
But, a great pianist can set the room on fire all by him (or her)self, and Ax had the hall under his spell from the very first moments of the Schubert A Major sonata: a somber and soulful work written towards the end of Schubert's short life. Ax played the opening Allegro with gentle force, making it sound like water running down a brook; the Andante was threaded with beautiful sadness, dying away in a slience that seemed to linger outside of time. Manny finished by showing off his lighter side in the jocular Allegro, leaving us all with big smiles.
During intermission, I spoke with a grey-haired but youthful lady next to me, who told me she remembered Ax when he was an 11-year-old prodigy at Marlboro, and has enjoyed seeing his interpretation grow and mature over the years. We also spoke about Schubert, who we both admire, and she told me her favorite interpreter was Artur Schnabel, who she saw play a survey of Schubert's piano works at Town Hall. "He wasn't technically perfect," she said, "but there was something magical in the way he played." Only after I got home did I find out that those concerts were in the 1940's.
After a transcendent reading of Schubert's first Impromptu in F minor, Ax launched into a performance of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata that can only be described as heroic. Beethoven wrote the Waldstein in 1804, around the same time as the Eroica symphony, charting new harmonic territory while pushing the performer and instrument to their absolute limits. (The modern piano was basically built in response to Beethoven's demanding requirements.) Manny attacked the opening Allegro - one of the most demanding in the entire repertoire - with unbelievable speed and power, his fingers moving faster than would seem humanly possible. He played the short Adagio much more slowly and darkly than I've ever heard, lingering on every note with an intensity bordering on obsession. This flowed seamlessly into the concluding Rondo, which began as a calm refuge but erupted after three minutes into a 45 second torrent of sound, the left hand banging away while the right flew up and down trills. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, head in hands, mouth gaping in astonishment. The pattern basically repeated for the rest of the 10-minute movement, growing increasingly insistent until finally ending in a series of hammered-out chords.
The crowd exploded, and many stood in appreciation: a rare tribute at this old-school venue. After several curtain calls, Ax returned with an encore of Chopin's Etude No. 3: a work of wide dynamic range no less heroic than the Beethoven. Not a bad night out for $5.20.
Most folks probably called it a night after that, but being somewhat younger than the mean, I decided to hop on the nearby L to Williamsburg, where there were a couple of musical events I found out about surfing Myspace the night before. The first was at something called the Dead Herring House: literally some kids' personal loft space with a stage set up in the kitchen window. They sold $2 PBR and $3 Ten High out of their fridge, while the J/M/Z occasionally rumbled by outside. These Are Powers, who blew me away at Death By Audio last week, were scheduled to play with a Cleveland outfit called Thee Scarcity of Tanks, but the latter band got lost somewhere en route. There were two openers: the more interesting of the two, Necking, combined rhythmic drumming ("big beat") with guitar, DJ and screaming front man Nick Lesley. The other, Coin Under Tongue, served little purpose other than to remind me to remember earplugs next time I head out.
Fortunately, it was only a short walk from there to Death By Audio, where I arrived in time to catch the last band of the evening: Athens, GA's Dark Meat. Basically a noise orchestra consisting of two drummers, three guitars, trombone, flute, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, cello and tambourine. Their sound floated somewhere between free jazz and roots rock, and was extremely loud. It was impossible to hear the acoustic instruments over the amplification, but I was able to pick out the trombone by standing directly next to him and plugging my ear facing the amp stack.
They finished with a rambling 20 minute improvisation during which the musicians circled the room and threw a drum and cymbal out on the floor for anyone to play. It was wild, feral - and nearly as intense as hearing Manny Ax play the Waldstein at full tilt earlier in the evening. As I trotted up to Bedford to find a cab back to Park Slope, I felt grateful to live in a place where I'm even able make that comparison.
P.S. Just to prove the point, Manny Ax is running a master class all next week at Weill Recital Hall, covering Brahms' sonatas for violin, clarinet and cello. Tickets are $15, courtesy of the Weill Music Institute.