When asked why he chose to focus on the music of Debussy for his Perspectives concerts, which begin October 20, Emanuel Ax replies simply, "His music is fabulous."
"I've loved Debussy's music for a long time but I haven't done much of it, and have never looked at Debussy before in this way," he explains. "I'm not trying to be revolutionary or convince people that Debussy was a great composer, because everyone knows that already. I just want to have a wonderful time exploring and playing his music."
The first event is a concert presentation of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, although, unusually for a Perspectives concert, Ax, the featured artist of these events, will not be performing in it. "Ara Guzelimian [Carnegie Hall Senior Director and Artistic Advisor] called to congratulate me on being the first Perspectives artist to have an opera," the pianist says with a laugh. "But, although I wish I could take credit, I didn't have much to do with the planning. Perhaps the Boston Symphony Orchestra will let me play the celeste in the performance."
Ax's Perspectives concerts include a broad range of artists to focus on Debussy, on the works and composers Debussy admired and was influenced by, and on 20th-century composers who were influenced by him. For example, the October 26 concert pairs Debussy with Falla. The former's solo piano works Ibéria from Images and Estampes will be presented along with Falla's orchestral works Nights in the Gardens of Spain and The Three-Cornered Hat.
The concert on October 22 pairs Debussy's La Mer and the Prelude, Dance of Ecstasy, and Finale from Act 1 of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien with Wagner's Prelude to Parsifal and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. In addition, Ax joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Franck's Symphonic Variations.
Wagner's influence on Debussy is well documented. "Debussy both loved and hated Wagner," says Ax. "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is deeply connected harmonically to the Prelude from Tristan. Debussy reacted against Wagner in some ways, but was also very influenced by him. There was a strong Franco-German relationship."
Other groupings in the Perspectives concerts will connect Debussy with other major French works. On April 24, for example, Ax will present Messiaen's "Louange à l'éternité de Jésus" from his Quartet for the End of Time, Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano, and Fauré's G Minor Piano Quartet.
A solo recital on December 16 will focus on Debussy's Images along with Rameau's Gavotte and Variations, Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Chopin's four Scherzos. "I am playing Chopin because Debussy and Chopin were both revolutionaries of the piano," Ax says. "Debussy liked Rameau, and Ravel was the other major figure of the time."
The season will also feature three world premieres. Toward the end of his life, Debussy planned a series of six chamber works, but because of his premature death from cancer, he only completed three. "So we chose three composers to finish the set," explains Ax. "The assignment of the parts was done by Debussy‹he left instructions as to which instruments should play. So we restricted the composers to these instruments. Also, in terms of time, we asked that the sonatas be roughly comparable to what Debussy would have written; about 12 to 16 minutes per piece."
So how were the composers chosen? According to Ax, Marc-André Dalbavie (a protégé of Pierre Boulez) was an obvious choice as "he is one of the most important French composers of our time." Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has lived in Paris since 1982. Ax heard an opera of hers and declares, "She is marvelous. And Steve Stucky I have known for a long time. He was a composer in residence in Los Angeles, and I really liked what I heard."
Ax says none of these composers have major connections with Debussy, although Stucky cites Debussy as an influence. However, he explains, "It's hard to avoid a connection. Debussy was such an important figure that it's difficult for anyone in the last century not to have been influenced by him."
Ax himself has never recorded Debussy. So does his focus on the composer mean a Debussy recording is in the works? "Maybe I will do one, but not for some time," he says, adding with a laugh, "It depends on the record companies more than on me."
Given the blank slate that is Perspectives, the pianist has adopted a low-key approach. He stresses that while historical analysis and connections are important, the sheer fun of music making and audience enjoyment have been the key factors that inspired him in planning the concerts. "I hope that the programs are enlightening in themselves," he says.
"An event called Perspectives can be anything at all. It can be the full range of activities of someone like Daniel Barenboim. It can focus on just one composer. Or you just have the chance to do something that makes sense for the listener. So while literary and philosophical connections are important, it's more important that the programs sound good, that one piece bounces off another‹with a short sweet focus on a couple of angles. In my case, I did not feel the need to make one strong intellectual point. Instead, I have some fabulous guest artists like Susan Graham and Yo-Yo Ma, and that's a large part of doing this: I get to work with great artists from whom I hope to learn a lot.
"I just hope that we have a wonderful time and that it's an enjoyable experience for everyone," Ax says, "for the composers, the performers, and the audience. And that it doesn't sound too esoteric. First and foremost, it should be emotional and exciting."
Vivien Schweitzer is a freelance writer and Gramophone correspondent.