In the fall of 1964, two teenage Juilliard pre-college students separately attended a recital at Carnegie Hall given by famed Soviet pianist Emil Gilels. Back at school the next day, the two young pianists recognized each other from the audience the evening before and struck up a conversation about Gilels’ mesmerizing performance. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last to this day.
Little did they know at the time, the young piano enthusiasts would grow up to become two of the most decorated American classical musicians of the latter half of the 20th century. One was Garrick Ohlsson; the other, Emanuel Ax.
This summer, Ohlsson – well-known among tonebase subscribers for his enlightening lessons and livestreams – will be joined by Ax on the tonebase Artist Roster. This past Tuesday, I traveled to West Stockbridge, MA, not far from Tanglewood, to visit Manny (as he insisted I call him) in his home.
It was a perfect day in the Berkshires, and my crew and I marveled at the beautiful wooded scenery as we pulled up to the home of the seven-time GRAMMY Award-winner. Manny, the “nicest person in the world” in Garrick’s words, greeted us warmly, and within minutes he had produced a platter of toasted bagels and coffee to keep us fueled during set up.
A far cry from the Juilliard prison cells where he learned his first substantial Chopin works, Manny’s home practice room is a spacious loft above the garage – detached from the main house, so as not to wake any family when sitting down at the piano first thing in the morning. It was there that Manny spent much of 2020, in refuge from the deadly coronavirus pandemic that was ravaging New York City, learning works by Bach and Chopin that he had been waiting for decades to add to his repertoire.
A few minutes after the crew loaded in and set up cameras, lights, and microphones around his Steinway, Manny came up the stairs to begin warming up. “Warming up,” if you’re Emanuel Ax, apparently means tossing off polished, memorized performances of one great work of Chopin after another. First, the G-flat Impromptu, Op. 51; next, the Berceuse, Op. 57. Then, a pair of Nocturnes, Op. 55, which he had learned for the first time while in lockdown last summer.
“My life is pretty boring,” Manny said, “so when Covid hit, all I could really do was practice.” So, he decided to crack open the Well-Tempered Clavier, as he was “always guilty” about not playing more Bach. Besides Bach, he dedicated himself to the late works of his compatriot Chopin, a composer he is often associated with. Yet, he made it to age 71 before finally learning such iconic works as the Barcarolle, Op. 60, which most Chopinists like Ax would have learned before graduating from conservatory.
Manny eventually arrived at the Barcarolle amid his glorified warm-up session, dropping his gondola into the water right at the work’s climax, followed by that heavenly coda. That was it! He was warm and ready to record for tonebase: a performance of two Nocturnes, Op. 55, followed by a lengthy interview at the piano with yours truly, focusing on Chopin and the many incredible pianists he witnessed live at Carnegie Hall growing up, from Gilels to Richter, Rubinstein to Horowitz, and more. We lost ourselves in conversation about the piano and its greatest champions.
Of course, Manny is one of those too, though he’d never admit it. “I hope you got something useful from the shoot,” he just wrote to me today. Oh, we did. We definitely did. And I can’t wait to share it with the tonebase community in just a couple weeks.
Peace, Love & Late Chopin,