“Immigrants Have Only Made the USA Great.” Emanuel Ax on identities in flux

Emanuel Ax (Foto: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Although you are an American, you were born in what was at the time part of the Soviet Union, in Lviv – a city that was formerly named Lemberg and is today part of Ukraine. At the age of seven, your family moved to Warsaw. What do you remember most of all from your childhood?
What first comes to mind of course is my parents. My mother had lost her entire family in the war, and my father had lost his first wife. An uncle on my mother’s side had also been killed, and his widow lived with us in a three-room apartment. It was a rather difficult situation, but for me it was okay: I was young and had nothing but wonderful people around me. My memories become more concrete with the move to Warsaw, where I had a very normal childhood. I had a terrific piano teacher and liked going to school …

What is your actual mother tongue?
I would say Polish, but we also spoke Russian at home.

To what extent have your origins shaped your identity?
When I arrived in the West, at first I was incredibly impressed by all the wealth there. And by the amazing things that I got to see. The fact that today I have such a weakness for technology and the latest technological developments may have to do with this experience. I was ten years old when we arrived in Canada and marveled at all the traffic, at the TV sets and toasters that could automatically pop out toasted bread – all of these were things I didn’t yet know about at the time.

As a pianist, do you feel connected to the Polish piano tradition?
My first great hero was Arthur Rubinstein, soon Vladimir Horowitz as well; later there were also Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, who all incredibly impressed me. The last four I mentioned were of course not Polish, but we should speak more of an East European School anyway. In any case, for most of the great pianists, their origin by itself is not the decisive factor. Rubinstein, for example, studied in Berlin, and he was a great expert in and lover of German music, which shaped him just as much as Chopin. So we can never limit identity to geography. It’s always in flux.

For over 50 years you have lived in the United States. What in your view is the greatest advantage of this country?
In America today there is a fantastic piano school. It can be attributed to the many immigrants who came to the USA, especially in the 1930s. This result is symptomatic. These immigrants have only made the United States great; they were its salvation. I myself have been living there since i was twelve. My wife is Japanese, but we feel very American. At the moment, the country is experiencing a strong influx from Asia, from Japan, China, Korea. Just take a look at the sciences: without all of these people we would be nothing! This merging of different cultures and this openness are for me the greatest strengths of the USA. We cannot look back over a proud 900-year history of the country or on a centuries-old German or Italian cultural tradition – but we do not need to, for these cultures have indeed immigrated with us. So someone like Leonard Bernstein, for example, is really an American “invention.” His teachers came from Europe and were shaped by the German tradition, while jazz also inspired him significantly, and then he had this specifically American way of wanting to soak up everything. And since he had the necessary talent, a Bernstein was the result. He showed us how wonderful America can be.

How has life in the USA changed since you have known it? And how has it changed during the last few months, during the presidency of Donald Trump?
Das The first is difficult for me to say, since I am a part of a whole and have not been able to observe it from outside. My experiences are “anecdotal” and isolated. But at the moment the situation is increasingly depressing, because it’s difficult for people who have different opinions to speak to each other. This division of society already began in the era of Barack Obama, and that is quite a paradox, for Obama really is a man who always wanted to connect. His bitterest experience was that there were many people he simply could not reach and as a result he could not convince them. Let’s just take TV: everyone switches on the channel that mirrors their own views but not those of others. This lack of an ability to have discussion is really a problematic development.

At the moment we find ourselves in a phase in which we don’t know exactly what we are in for. Every morning when I switch on my iPad to read the New York Times, I get this feeling: Geez, what has Donald Trump done now … He is so erratic. Take his military attacks on Syria. If Obama had ordered them, you would have thought: Okay, he probably reflected on this and was thoroughly consulted, so he made this decision with good reason. But with Trump you never know whether he has done something just because he is tired or was in a bad mood. He isn’t a reflective type, and that is alarming.

Should a classical musician raise his or her voice against social or political aberrations?
I do so in any case. I often write letters to the New York Times, and sometimes they even print them. And I also have a Twitter account where I express myself. But I don’t know how much power we have and whether we can effect anything overall. When I write letters to the editor, when I discuss and am engaged, I do that not as a classical musician but as an American citizen. Sometimes it’s also hard to decide the context in which you want your name to be known. An example: I am a Jew but I do not support Israeli settlement policy. If I were to follow the consequences and no longer appear with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, then I would also insult many friends who are part of this orchestra and who themselves are by no means supporters of Benjamin Netanjahu. So what would be right?

One more question about your musical identity: You play a wide repertoire from the Viennese classical masters to the present. What are you closest to?
I’d probably have to say the good German composers, Mozart, Beethoven, and maybe Brahms most of all. I have played all of Brahms’s chamber music with such colleagues as my friend Yo-Yo Ma. There I fell completely at home. And of course also with Chopin – but what pianist doesn’t like him? Among contemporaries, I especially value HK Gruber. I just gave the world premiere of his Piano Concerto, an excellent piece!

Interview: Susanne Stähr

Emanuel Ax will perform Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E-flat major, K. 449 on 9th September 2017 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

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