In a celebratory season replete with extravagant, exciting performances, the Harriman-Jewell Series presented pianist Emanuel Ax on Saturday in an intimate concert on the William Jewell College campus, where the series started 50 years ago.
This was a special evening on multiple levels. An appreciative audience filled the John Gano Memorial Chapel for this Founders’ Concert, honoring and officially recognizing D. Dean Dunham, Jr. as co-founder of the series with opening remarks from David Sallee, president of the college. This presentation received the first standing ovation of the evening.
This was Ax’s 12th appearance with the series. He shared some reminiscences from his long association with the series and Richard Harriman in his post-show comments.
Ax joked that the program was “all French, except for the intermission.” Throughout the absorbing performing, he remained reserved, his focus completely turned to the keyboard, retaining expansive gestures for the dramatic final cadences in only a few of the works.
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He started with Georges Bizet’s “Variations Chromatiques de Concert for Piano.” With steady pulse and judicious rubato he declaimed the theme, decorated with attention-grabbing trills and shimmering runs, the variations strung seamlessly together, yet with each with an individual character.
In Jean-Philippe Rameau’ Suite in G major from “Piéces de Clavecin” he brought out the rhythmic figures in a way that clearly pointed to the work’s original intent as a harpsichord piece, masterfully changing character in the silence between movements.
A sequence of works from Claude Debussy followed. His “Estampes” was evocative, exotic, hinting at the drifting scent of tree blossoms in “Pagodas” or a “La soirée dans Grenade” that revealed the theme as though glimpsed through a veil. His “Hommage à Rameau” was beautiful, with a precious consideration to the placement of the lovely winding line. He paused briefly, maintaining the audience’s rapt attention, before transitioning to a playful, triumphant “L’Isle Joyeuse,” though the final cadence seemed abrupt.
During the intermission, the concertgoers gathered on the steps and lawn in front of the chapel, enjoying the near full moon and spring breeze while munching on cookies provided by the series as a commemorative treat.
Ax walked back on stage with little ado, settling in for Frédéric Chopin’s four Scherzi, a demanding series of florid keyboard runs and glittering figures. Simplistic, hymn-like melodies were laden with nostalgia, contrasted to the torrent of notes played with impeccable clarity. Throughout, Ax drew out surprising details of the works, matching hesitant figures to confident ones, turning a conversational line into an argumentative one, or encouraging such effervescent playfulness that brought to mind the delicate whimsy of the jewelry-box ballerina.
The performance received an immediate standing ovation, with shouts for an encore. The ever-affable Ax shrugged with an affirmative gesture, asking the audience “how about a little more Chopin?”