hen Emanuel Ax brings his fingers down on the keyboard for the first notes of Johann Sebastian Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D major with the New York Philharmonic on October 4, it will be the first time he has ever performed Bach in public.
Why has it taken so long? After all, among many other accomplishments, the noted pianist has performed with the Orchestra more than 100 times since his debut in 1977, thus earning election as an Honorary Member of the Philharmonic. The Orchestra's Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence for the 2012 _13 season, he has won Grammys for his solo Haydn, and for Beethoven and Brahms with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He is a nonpareil.
"I'm scared," Ax said on the phone from Tanglewood over the summer. "It's just something I didn't learn as a kid. It's very hard: there are a lot of notes."
Excuse me? This is the artist whom one critic praised not so long ago for his "impressive ability to elucidate massive fistfuls of notes." Another spoke of the "laser-beam precision" of his fingers. A third described him as "commanding."
Yet Ax is always modest, with an unassuming demeanor, but that is belied by his assured, extraordinarily musical performances, which somehow seem easy. He explains the dichotomy of outward appearance and inner tension: "I am working very hard, and I'm generally nervous about playing. Everybody gets a little nervous." But this does not diminish Ax's eagerness to play the Bach concerto: "It is sub- lime and wonderful music. It is a privilege to be working on it."
This program pairs Bach with a composer who, for better or worse, has a reputation for being difficult to understand: Arnold Schoenberg. Ax and Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert will preface their performance of the Piano Concerto, Op. 42, with an onstage discussion, a sort of guide to the piece. Nevertheless, Ax says, "I don't feel that I am doing the concerto because I am on a mission to popularize it. I happen to like the piece a lot. I think audiences respond to it."
He was intrigued to discover, once the program was established, that the late Glenn Gould paired the same works with the Philharmonic, back in 1958. Great minds thinking alike? "I think certainly one great mind, and possibly a copycat."
Ax is the Orchestra's fourth Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, succeeding Frank Peter Zimmermann (2011 _12), Anne-Sophie Mutter (2010 _11), and Thomas Hampson (2009 _10). This does not mean that he will move into an apartment somewhere in Avery Fisher Hall (besides, he already lives in New York). "It's a matter of being able to do more than one week, and possibly to explore some repertoire and repeat other works. It might be something you love and that does not get done every day," he explains. Besides the Bach and Schoenberg, October 4 _6 (on a program that also includes Mozart's Symphony No. 36, Linz), he will play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 (April 24 _25 and 27 and on the EUROPE / SPRING 2013 tour) and, finally, Seeing for Piano and Orchestra by The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in- Residence, Christopher Rouse (June 20 _22). Ax and the Orchestra premiered this Philharmonic commission in 1999 and reprised it in 2003. "I am very excited to do the Rouse again," he said. "It is a piece I think is really great and deserves to just be heard more."
The duties : and perks : of being an Artist- in-Residence include the chance to play chamber music with musicians from the Orchestra, many of whom are the pianist's long- time friends. On November 4, in the Rose Theater at the Time Warner Center, he will play Schoenberg's chamber arrangement of Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in a version completed by Rainer Riehn. The other performers are to be mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Russell Thomas, and several of the Orchestra's principal players, conduct- ed by Matthias Pintscher. Then, on the November 24 Saturday Matinee Concert, he will again join Philharmonic musicians for Brahms's Piano Quintet.
Although Emanuel Ax grew up listening to Glenn Gould and his Bach recordings : "he was a supreme and incredible artist in many areas of music" : they do have one important area of disagreement. Gould withdrew from public performance in 1964 at the age of 31 and did all his subsequent work in the record- ing studio. "He made sensational records; there is nothing lacking in his recordings," Ax says. But he considers live performance essential for the musical experience. "That emotional concentration, to have the involvement of the listener as well as the performer, is crucial," he states. "You put on a CD at home, and it's a wonderful performance, but the listener is not hearing it the same as when he or she is up for an event. To me, that is very important. Of course, it is part of my job to grab the audience as much as possible, to make it possible for people to feel that they are at an event. I think the involvement should come from both sides."
Indeed, Ax believes the audience also has a great deal to do with the success of a performance. "After many years of playing, I am convinced that the person who comes to the concert is at least as responsible for the impression as the person on stage," he explains. "If I am excited about going to a concert and want to hear the music that is going to be played, I know I am going to enjoy it."
Peter W. Goodman is assistant professor of journal- ism at Hofstra University. For many years a music critic for Newsday and New York Newsday, he is the author of Morton Gould: American Salute.