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Music review: Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw at Disney Concert Hall

March 24, 2010 | 11:52 am

Every year has its milestone birthdays and commemorations, but 2010 seems to have more than its share – and 200-year-old Chopin may be the biggest beneficiary.

He is clearly getting the most attention – as if  Poland’s most famous, most-often-performed composer needs it – from what is left of the classical recording industry. Poland issued a 20 zloty note with Chopin’s portrait, and we’re seeing an outpouring of Chopin coins from such cultural hot spots (?) as Andorra, Tuvalu and Niue.

Over at Walt Disney Concert Hall, pianist Emanuel Ax is the point man for Chopin with four different programs in four formats – and in three of them, he also includes another 200-year-old composer, Robert Schumann (not to be confused with 100-year-old William Schuman). 

He had soprano Dawn Upshaw with him Tuesday night, guaranteeing that this would be an event, although the hall looked only about two-thirds full.

For fans of Upshaw -- who usually appears here in high-profile premieres by Osvaldo Golijov, Kaija Saariaho, György Kurtág, or other new-music headliners -- the evening might have seemed at first blush like a retreat to the 19th century mainstream. Yet Chopin’s mere handful of songs, mostly gathered into Opus 74, are hardly standard fare, although they will resonate with anyone familiar with the idioms of the waltzes, mazurkas and nocturnes. Upshaw and Ax selected seven of them, and Upshaw found much dramatic impact in the pessimistic strains of “Melody” and “I Want What I Have Not,” while Ax carefully followed every melting vocal rubato.

The Schumann material, ranging from the burst of lieder that the composer brought forth in 1840 to some songs from his last active years, came toward the end of the evening. Now singing from memory, in full silvery voice, Upshaw was able to free herself physically from the formal conventions of a song recital, using gestures to heighten the emotional impact of the texts, always aware of the structures of each song and shaping them accordingly. Best of all was “Mignon,” with its haunting refrain, “Dahin! Dahin.”

DawnFittingly for Upshaw, there was a piece of new music to be heard.

Indeed, the program was supposed to have included a new work by Golijov, but it wasn’t ready in time – so Upshaw and Ax inserted a whimsical 15-minute song cycle by Stephen Prutsman called “Piano Lessons” (a Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. co-commission).  

Using rippling scales, a mock waltz, even some rock-tinged jazz, Prutsman follows the ruminations of a young piano student practicing his scales.  The most moving song comes last, a touching description of the student’s piano with an accompaniment that, to me, hints at the slow movement of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata.

On his own, Ax’s renditions of Chopin’s Opus 41 Mazurkas – performed in the following order: Nos. 2, 3, 4 and finally 1 – were disappointing, the musical  sentences slammed together with little trace of a lilt. The Opus 27 Nocturnes were somewhat better, with more deeply felt atmosphere and more judicious use of the pedal.

Finally, Upshaw and Ax topped off the program with the brief  “Er ist’s” by another birthday boy, Hugo Wolf, who turned 150 March 13.  And we almost forgot, Prutsman is 50 this year, so that made it a clean sweep for milestone birthdays.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Emanuel Ax, Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ax performs a a different program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday; chamber music at 8 p.m. Tuesday; solo recital at 8 p.m. April 20. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.corm.

Photos: Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times


Emanuel Ax talks about his L.A. Philharmonic residency