Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, May 24, 1999

Ax brings life to ‘Burleske’

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin


EVERYONE harbors biases, critics perhaps especially. We are, after all, an opinionated lot, so this must begin with a confession.

Richard Strauss's Burleske for piano and orchestra has seemed to me a youthful indiscretion, a piece of bravura fluff, that only pianists love because it shows off their marvelous technique. At least that is how I have heard it played: lots of notes, no soul. But one of the joys in attending concerts is hearing something that prompts a reevaluation.

In the final concert of Honolulu Symphony's 99th season, Pianist Emanuel Ax presented a delightful, whimsical version of Strauss's Burleske, sweeping the work's far flung ideas into neat coherence. Perhaps Ax's love of the work provided that coherence: "It is one of the most unjustly neglected works in the repertoire. I just adore it.

"The only drawback to this piece," Ax said, "is that it's too difficult for the piano. There are lots of notes. I try to play most of them. I try for a good batting average."

His "batting average" is better than most. Other pianists just succeed in making the piece sound hard, but Ax made it sound playful, dazzling, funny. In other words, like a Burleske, which Ax described as "a piece for actors." If so, then Ax the Actor possesses a variety of internal characters, the most charming of which was his lyrical mid-section solo.

After a short break, Ax returned to the stage with his wife Yoko Nozaki, to perform Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365. In order to balance the power of two modern grand pianos, the orchestra remained large except for the winds, which remained in 18th-century pairs.

Mozart's music is notorious for its transparency: every note and nuance is exposed. The first movement began with some tugging in ensemble, and a touch of culture shock reverberated in Ax's fingers from the abrupt shift in style.

But as the piece progressed, Ax and Nozaki relaxed into it, presenting two distinct personalities. Nozaki had a lighter, more pristine touch; Ax had a more robust, more passionate style and was more likely to take liberties in nuance. Differences were most distinct in their trills: hers embellished discreetly; his exuberantly. As a pair, they defined concerto: to contend together.

Conductor Samuel Wong closed with Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, a tone poem about a hero (Strauss) and his battles with his adversaries (the music critics).

Strauss depicts his adversaries with music that borders on cacophony, of precisely the type that made his critics cringe, while depicting himself with soaring, lyrical heroism.

To capture Strauss' lush late Romantic sound, Wong added 30 extra players. The aural pyrotechnics of the battle were hair-raising, and numerous thrilling solos added fire. Of note were those by concertmaster Ignace Jang. An impassioned performance overall.

Strauss effects "peace" by means of themes from his previous works, the very ones the critics railed against. The hero ascends into the ether, and the brass close with a triumphal fanfare from Also sprach Zarathustra (of "2001 A Space Odyssey"). Strauss, then, is the musical philosopher, whose melodies will endure and transform music for future generations.

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