October 21, 2018

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Pianist Emanuel Ax sharp in his return

One-time Winnipegger helps new music director Daniel Raiskin kick off WSO season in style

Pianist Emanuel Ax and concertmaster Gwen Hoebig during Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in F-flat major, Op. 73, a.k.a. the Emperor. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Pianist Emanuel Ax and concertmaster Gwen Hoebig during Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in F-flat major, Op. 73, a.k.a. the Emperor. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Power and passion took centre stage Monday night when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra celebrated one of the city’s most revered musical sons as well as its newest hero.

The third-annual Asper Foundation Opening Night Gala featured pianist Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, popularly known as the “Emperor,” with the program led by Russian-born maestro Daniel Raiskin, marking his debut as the WSO’s new music director.

Ax first arrived in Winnipeg from Warsaw, Poland with his parents in 1959, living in the North End before departing two years later to further his musical studies at the Juilliard School in New York City.

After opening speeches by WSO board president Terry Sargeant, arts visionary/gala sponsor Gail Asper, Cathy Cox, the provincial culture minister, and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, Ax took the stage for Beethoven’s monumental, three-movement work he performed on the same stage in 1985.

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Power and passion took centre stage Monday night when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra celebrated one of the city’s most revered musical sons as well as its newest hero.

The third-annual Asper Foundation Opening Night Gala featured pianist Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, popularly known as the "Emperor," with the program led by Russian-born maestro Daniel Raiskin, marking his debut as the WSO’s new music director.

Ax first arrived in Winnipeg from Warsaw, Poland with his parents in 1959, living in the North End before departing two years later to further his musical studies at the Juilliard School in New York City.

After opening speeches by WSO board president Terry Sargeant, arts visionary/gala sponsor Gail Asper, Cathy Cox, the provincial culture minister, and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, Ax took the stage for Beethoven’s monumental, three-movement work he performed on the same stage in 1985.

Now in his late 60s, Ax performs with the vigour and conviction of a man half his age, with cyclonic gale force that belies his easy, humble demeanour. After Raiskin first set the tone with the orchestra’s regal opening chords during the Allegro, embellished by Ax’s declamatory flourishes, the pianist proceeded to display his fierce artistry, technical mastery and a rich tonal palette spanning gossamer light trills and delicate staccatos, to thundering chords ending at the extreme range of the keyboard.

It’s also remarkable that Ax has performed the Emperor for 40-plus years, yet the piece sounds wholly fresh and new, with the pianist delivering his florid passage work with military precision, including rhythmic accents that pierced like arrowheads.

Witnessing a new music director taking full ownership of a podium for the first time is a rarefied event that only occurs in our city, on average, every 10 years. A second revelation on Monday night quickly became hearing the players, newly re-energized and clearly smitten with their new leader, also responding with fervour to Raiskin’s clear, expansive direction.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's new music director Daniel Raiskin showcased his musical passion during his debut Monday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)</p></p>

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's new music director Daniel Raiskin showcased his musical passion during his debut Monday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

This became particularly evident during the ethereal Adagio un poco mosso, which also showcased Ax’s graceful lyricism and long-arching phrasing. He cast a spell of luminosity while keeping things moving during this always-gorgeous central movement that some might arguably prefer at a more deliberate tempo.

The segue into the finale that follows is one of classical music’s greatest moments, in which a solo bassoon slips a semi-tone to usher in the Rondo: Allegro. After Ax’s first skeletal, rising chords, he then launched into its rollicking theme with each return in various guises growing in insistence until its resounding finish.

As expected, the pianist received a rousing standing ovation with cries of bravo and a demand for three curtain calls. He rewarded the mostly older crowd with an encore of Schumann’s Aufschwung (Soaring) from Fantasiestücke op. 12.

The program’s second half featured Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64,. composed in 1888, which offered an intriguing opportunity to see the St. Petersburg-born maestro, the son of a highly respected musicologist, lead music from his home city.

Raiskin immediately proved he has this passionate music in his blood and bones, conducting from a still point of an innate, deep understanding of its Russian soul.

He allowed the well-paced, four-movement work to ebb and flow, laced with its recurring "Fate" motto theme first introduced with grave solemnity by the clarinets and low strings during the opening Andante — Allegro con anima movement.

But Raiskin's animated approach also instilled personality into this performance, allowing individual soloists and collective instrumental sections to come to the fore with their own voices, adding to the greater whole. Bravo to principal horn Patricia Evans for her gorgeously eloquent extended solo during the Andante cantabile second movement, joined by principal oboe Beverly Wang’s own expressive lines.

Then it became time for the lilting Valse, which also highlights the strings and winds, before the firestorm Finale, given greater backbone by particularly strong brass, including its clearly delighted trombones given licence to really blow. This built momentum until its enthralling climax that heralds triumph over the winds of fate.

Once again, the crowd leapt to its feet with the night’s second ovation for the orchestra and its newest maestro, seemingly a harbinger of even greater things to come for the 71-year old WSO as it begins its next chapter.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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History

Updated on Thursday, September 20, 2018 at 9:15 AM CDT: Corrects title of concerto

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