Review: Emanuel Ax, a Bach Festival Society visiting artist

It seems politicians these days are always telling us how they're working to make Orlando a world-class city for the arts. Yes, it's true that local arts organizations can always use more support. But for a world-class example of what they do with their current resources, look no further than Wednesday night's Emanuel Ax concert.

The renowned pianist opened the 79th season of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park with a sold-out performance at Rollins College's Tiedtke Concert Hall. It was indeed a world-class evening.

A multi-Grammy winner and professor at New York's Juilliard School, Ax regularly performs solo and with orchestras — more than 100 times with the New York Philharmonic alone.

He's usually playing in the world's grandest theaters; at the intimate Tiedtke hall, it was like having an old friend in your living room.

In fact, Ax is an old friend to the Society. The concert marked his fifth turn as a visiting artist, though it has been nearly a decade since his last appearance.

On Wednesday, Ax showed why he is a firm favorite of classical-music fans. With precision and dynamic shading, he soared through a selection of crowd-pleasingly familiar Beethoven and Brahms works.

The "Pathetique" — Beethoven's Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 — was perhaps the best-known, and Ax demonstrated an emotional connection to the work from the first attention-getting chord. The tremulous treble line coyly played off the booming bass notes in the first movement with a growing sense of urgency.

In the adagio movement, that familiar, simple melody line shimmered hauntingly over the lower notes.

The program's other Beethoven piece, Sonata Op. 2, No. 2 in A Major, was delivered with equal flair.

Ax relished the attacks on the bass notes of his Steinway grand, and after the drama of the opening, he moved gracefully into the smooth, connected phrasing of the largo movement, before finding the playfulness of the piece's later segments.

The varied intermezzos of Brahms' "Klavierstucke," Op. 119, let Ax show off his different voices: first delicate keystrokes, then a rich warmth, before a triumphant conclusion. Brahms' "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel," Op. 24, also displayed Ax's mastery of contrast in mood.

For an encore, Ax lightly played Schumann's sweet "Des Abends," a charming end to an exhilarating evening.

Ahead from the Bach Festival Society

Next choral concert: 'A Child of Our Time.' Michael Tippett's epic work of hope commemorates 1938's Kristallnacht, a tragic milestone in Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2 and 5 p.m. Nov. 10 in Knowles Memorial Chapel on the Rollins College Campus. Tickets are $25-$55.

Next visiting artist: The Miró Quartet will present a Franz Schubert program at 3 p.m. Nov. 17 in Rollins' Tiedtke Concert Hall. Tickets are $35-$50.

Call: 407-646-2182

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