Breakfast with Emanuel Ax

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WEST STOCKBRIDGE — For eminent pianist Emanuel Ax — "Manny" to one and all — this is an especially sweet Berkshires summer.

For the first time, he has cleared his concert schedule, except for several performances at Tanglewood, so he can spend quality time with his wife Yoko, a pianist he met at music school 43 years ago, and visiting with his children and grandchildren from mid-June to September at their beloved country home.

Sure, he practices up to five hours a day, Ax acknowledged over a simple breakfast at No. Six Depot this past week. And he's studying scores for his 2017-18 season, maintaining an annual schedule of about 95 concerts.

But at 68, Ax is savoring the prospect of more down time at his year-round second home here in the Berkshires.

When he was 7, Ax started studying piano and simply enjoyed it — "I think it's more a matter of desire than sheer talent. I've been very lucky."

A native of Lvov in the Ukraine, formerly part of Poland and previously Austria-Hungary before World War I, Ax points out that "my mother, Hellen, was born Polish, my father, Joachim, was born Austrian, and I was born in the Soviet Union."

After an odyssey that included Warsaw and Winnipeg, Manitoba, the family settled in New York City as the budding musician pursued his studies.

"I had incredibly kind and very effective teachers, a good beginning," Ax said in between bites of his plain croissant. At the age of 12, he started attending the top-ranked Juilliard conservatory in Manhattan.

Fast forward to 1978, when Ax was called in as a substitute to perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood — his BSO debut and first time in the Berkshires.

"The manager at the time, Tom Morris, took a chance on me, there was nobody else, so what can happen?" Ax remembered. He had a serious case of nerves, "but I always get nervous when I play. Everybody in the orchestra was very kind."

The rapidly rising pianist soon became a Tanglewood regular, frequently teaming up with old friend Yo-Yo Ma, the superstar cellist.

By 1995, after renting a succession of homes, the Ax family decided to have a house built after local architect Alan R. Clark showed them an affordable and desirable piece of land on East Alford Road in West Stockbridge.

"My only instruction to Clark was to do what you feel like doing, so the house is a little weird but we love it, it's amazing and wonderful.

"Every time we come up here, I just think we should live here all the time," Ax said. "It's kind of a fantasy of mine. There's something about the Berkshires, a kind of magic. It draws people," noting that his pal Yo-Yo also settled not far away, in Tyringham.

But the logistics of an international career make it more practical to maintain the family apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side where they've lived for 40 years.

Family ties are foremost with Ax. His son, Joey, 38, a reporter for Reuters news service, and daughter-in-law, who works for Bristol-Myers Squibb, live in Princeton, N.J., with their twins, 2 1/2 years old. His daughter, Sarah, 34, lives in Brooklyn and works for a sports-promotion firm.

Unlike some musicians who minimize listening for pleasure, Ax emphasized that "we listen all the time to a lot of piano playing." He cited among his favorites the artistry of Oscar Peterson, the late Canadian jazz pianist.

"I think he may be the greatest pianist I've ever heard," Ax marveled. "What he did with his hands, I can't imagine it. Also, Andre Previn, an incredible player who has done it all."

On long plane flights, Ax binge-watches TV series such as "Mad Men," "The Wire," "The Sopranos" and "Homeland."

During their three months in the country this summer, Ax, a devoted tennis fan, spends time court-side since his wife is an avid player.

"Otherwise, I sit around, I read, I try to walk, I see friends," he said. "Being up here you can practice the piano for four or five hours a day and still feel like you're on vacation. We like being at home a lot, we don't go out a lot for food. It seems easier to cook at home."

When he is out and about, Ax mingles with admirers — "I love meeting people."

Looking ahead, he anticipates slowing down. "I'm getting very old," he remarked, laughing heartily at the suggestion that 68 is the new 58.

"I see the glass as half full rather than half-empty," he said when asked about the future of classical music. "I'm hoping we've turned the corner, and that many, many people are aware that our educational system is letting down the arts. A lot of organizations and individuals are stepping up to change that." For example, Ax will work with young teens at the Kids 4 Harmony program in Pittsfield on July 31.

"A decade from now, if I'm still around, I hope we'll be able to say, `Look, things are better.' Young people who are studying now have their own ideas, and I think, I hope it's going to be OK."


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