Fans rank him among the top classical musicians. So did Philips Records in its “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series, which put him in the exalted company of Rubinstein and Rachmaninov. Sony Music just issued a 23-disc retrospective of every Ax recording from 1975 through 1987.
But chat on the phone for half an hour, as he’s being driven to Duluth, Minn., for a concert, and he qualifies for one accolade: Most Modest World-Famous Musician.
Why doesn’t he play more Russian composers? “I love a lot of the music, but I just don’t think I’m very good at it.”
Would he emulate longtime collaborator Yo-Yo Ma, who crossed over from classical to Americana and world music? “There are people who do everything under the sun and do it brilliantly. I feel inadequate around them but try to enjoy them. Andre Previn’s like that: orchestrator, classical pianist, conductor, jazz musician. I had one session with Andre (where he) tried to teach me jazz. After 45 minutes, he said ‘You’re hopeless! Stick to Beethoven.’ ”
Speaking of Ludwig, Ax plans to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth in 2020 by playing Beethoven sonatas he’s never attempted plus works by his contemporaries. How about Carl Maria von Weber’s Third Sonata? “It’s fabulous, but probably too hard for me now.”
Yet at 69, he’s up to challenges. His Charlotte recital offers Brahms’ two rhapsodies, Schumann’s eight Fantasiestücke, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and three mazurkas, a nocturne and the Andante Spianato by Chopin, cornerstones of the solo repertoire. It also contains the local premiere of “Piano Figures,” by living British composer George Benjamin.
“It’s 10 miniatures that each last a minute to a minute and a half, and I am learning them now,” he said. “They’re hard! They’re vignettes along the lines of Webern or maybe Schoenberg that capture one mood: not pretty, but arresting, and they go well with the Schumann. I thought it might be nice to do something people don’t know – and I can be sure this will be the best performance of it Charlotte has ever heard.”
His famously genial personality comes from 45 years of joyful, professional music-making, which has earned him seven Grammys. But his life began bumpily.
He was born to concentration camp survivors in the city of Lviv/Lvov, which changed names as it passed from Ukraine to Poland. He heard the first piece of music he can remember, Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugen Onegin,” at 4, while his dad taught the cast of the Lvov Opera proper speech habits.
Before little Manny turned 12, the family moved to Warsaw, Winnipeg (Manitoba) and New York, where he eventually studied at Juilliard – he now teaches there – and collected a B.A. in French from Columbia University.
Maybe this cosmopolitan life gave him all-embracing tastes in classical music. Or maybe not.
“I think what makes you want to play certain music is your experiences with what you heard,” he said. “I heard Rubinstein a lot, I heard Horowitz a lot” – he pronounces it “Horovitz,” in the Eastern European manner – “and they were idiomatic Chopin players. If I have a decent way with Chopin, that’s probably due to upbringing.
“Sad to say, my teacher wasn’t interested in Bach, so I learned very little while I was young. I’ve (since) learned three of the Bach partitas, and my goal is to learn the other three and play them before I’m completely kaput.”
Kaput-ness doesn’t loom. He’s playing 14 concerts between now and the end of November, and he premieres works written for him, including a concerto last year by avant-gardist H.K. Gruber.
“It’s a never-ending battle to learn stuff,” he said, at an age when many pianists revisit catalogs of greatest hits. “I like to do different things every year, so I try to learn new music. There’s an incredible amount of standard repertoire I still haven’t played…. And I have to keep playing things like Brahms’ Second Concerto pretty much every season. If you don’t do it for a season, you might not be able to do it again, especially at my age.
“The main big thing left for me is learning more Bach. I don’t know about performing it; I just want to learn it for myself. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand it: It’s emotionally very deep. You don’t reach the bottom.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18.
WHERE: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.
DETAILS: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.