CEDAR RAPIDS — As more than 1,000 middle school students gathered Thursday morning in the Paramount Theatre, the cacophony of chattering children began to drown out Emanuel Ax warming up on the concert grand piano.
But when the lights dimmed, a hush fell over the room, and after the world-renowned artist finished his first piece — an eight-minute Beethoven sonata — cheers, whistles and applause pierced the air.
The kids knew they were in the company of brilliance and artistry.
“I was nervous at first,” McKinley Middle School music teacher Sarah Anderson said after the first of two student concerts. “I wasn’t quite sure if they were really going to appreciate what was going on. I think there’s something about being in this setting and seeing such an amazing musician, they were really captivated by this. That was just really fun to see.”
McKinley sent about 150 seventh-graders to the 9:45 a.m. concert. “For a lot of the kids, this was their first time seeing the Paramount Theatre,” Anderson said. “It was nice to share with them the building’s history and how special it is to have it here in town. To hear an international-class musician is an opportunity many would never seek out on their own without this educational partnership” with Orchestra Iowa.
Ax, a Grammy-winning pianist from New York, had a busy start to his four-day residency offered to Orchestra Iowa free of charge. The performance fee for an artist of this magnitude typically would be in the six-figures, said Timothy Hankewich, Orchestra Iowa’s music director.
“This is a rare opportunity,” Hankewich told the students, “and I ask you to listen with your undivided attention.”
The event blended concert and conversation, as Hankewich fielded questions from about 25 students seated onstage. In response, Ax spoke about the importance of never giving up when you find something you enjoy, even when it gets hard.
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When asked about his personal history, he shared that his parents were the only survivors from their families sent to Nazi concentration camps in Poland. And while he and his parents were born in the same city, Lvov, because of border changes, his father was born in Austria, his mother in Poland, and he in the part of the former Soviet Union that is now Ukraine.
Ax said he began playing at age 7 on a piano that previous tenants left in the apartment his family moved into while in the Soviet Union. At age 10, his family moved to Canada, and two years later, to New York, where he’s lived since. And thanks to a student question, we learned Ax received a scholarship from the Boy Scouts to study at The Juilliard School in Manhattan. In return, he still gives benefit concerts for Scouting programs.
Between the questions, Ax played works by Chopin and Mozart, often asking the kids to wish him luck because the pieces were very hard. He wisely chose pieces that also were very quiet, forcing the young listeners to be quiet as well so they could hear all the nuances.
Students at the first morning concert came from Cedar Rapids middle schools, while at the 11:10 a.m. concert they came from area parochial schools, Marion intermediate and home school programs, as well as Anamosa, Lisbon, Tipton and Mid-Prairie districts.
Far from done for the day, at 4 p.m., Ax fielded questions and played selections for Orchestra Iowa’s board of directors, meeting at Coe College, then immediately left for Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, where he again entertained questions and performed for a large crowd in the second-floor Stanley Cafe.
All serious at the grand pianos, his humor and humility shined just as brightly when answering questions. Recurring themes throughout the day revolved around his musical beginnings and what it will take to keep classical music and orchestras viable.
He said he feels his generation “dropped the ball” in fostering a love for these artforms by not getting instruments into children’s hands. He’s heartened to see his son’s generation changing that and pointed to the importance of keeping music in the schools and in community organizations.
“If we could get everyone to play something — the recorder, or sing, or play piano or guitar — we would see more participation in audiences,” he said.
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Calling himself “OK at music” because he works at it, he said he practices four hours every day; can’t improvise because he only plays from music; performs about 90 concerts per year; gets “nervous about everything” he plays and makes mistakes in every concert.
“The only thing I’ve ever played faultlessly is intermission,” he said.
His four-day residency continues Friday with a fundraiser for Orchestra Iowa; evening concerts with the orchestra Saturday at the Paramount Theatre and Sunday in the Solon school district’s new performing arts center; and a chamber master class with students in the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital Hall on Sunday morning, followed by a 2 p.m. performance at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
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