Hoopla

'Staggering' gift: Pianist Emanuel Ax giving Corridor unprecedented experience

Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Emanuel Ax, the world’s foremost concert pianist, is gifting Orchestra Iowa and the Corridor with a free residency, beginning today (4/12) with student concerts at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Other events include an appearance in Hancher’s Stanley Cafe tonight; a gala orchestra fundraiser Friday night; evening concerts with the orchestra Saturday at the Paramount and Sunday in Solon High School’s new Center for the Arts; as well as a master class in the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital Hall on Sunday morning and a performance at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital on Sunday afternoon.
Lisa Marie Mazzucco Emanuel Ax, the world’s foremost concert pianist, is gifting Orchestra Iowa and the Corridor with a free residency, beginning today (4/12) with student concerts at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Other events include an appearance in Hancher’s Stanley Cafe tonight; a gala orchestra fundraiser Friday night; evening concerts with the orchestra Saturday at the Paramount and Sunday in Solon High School’s new Center for the Arts; as well as a master class in the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital Hall on Sunday morning and a performance at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital on Sunday afternoon.
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Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich is never at a loss for words. However, the thought of performing with Emanuel Ax this week has rendered him speechless.

Among his many musical talents, Hankewich is an accomplished pianist — and Ax is his idol.

The Grammy-winning artist, largely considered the world’s foremost pianist, is coming to Cedar Rapids today (4/12) to begin a free residency with a series of events designed to shine a light on Orchestra Iowa.

His itinerary includes two student concerts at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids today (4/12), a brief talk and performance around 5:30 p.m. today (4/12) during Hancher’s regular Thursday Nights at Stanley Cafe in Iowa City; two evening masterworks concerts with Orchestra Iowa at the Paramount on Saturday and the Solon Center for the Arts on Sunday; a performance Friday night for a gala fundraising dinner to support Orchestra Iowa’s education and outreach programming; a chamber music master class from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday at the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital Hall, followed by a 2 p.m. performance at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, both in Iowa City.

Ax is waiving his usual fee, which Hankewich said would be “in the six figures” for an artist of his caliber. The orchestra is paying for his transportation and lodging — the rest of his time and talents are donated.

“The gift he’s giving this community is staggering,” Hankewich said. He’s had a year for this to sink in, and still, it really hasn’t.

“This whole week, I’m in a fog,” he said. “I’m still in shock.”

The orchestra’s 2017-18 season had already been set when Ax’s management called with this offer. The season quickly changed.

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“We had to think about it for maybe 20 seconds. How could you say ‘no’ to such an incredible gift,” Hankewich said.

“For a few years now, (Ax) has been selecting orchestras our size to perform with, and to lend his credibility behind the work that they do. It’s no secret that orchestras across the nation are struggling, and certainly small orchestras — those of our size — are canaries in the coal mine,” Hankewich said.

“I think he is building a legacy to show everyone that great art doesn’t just exist in New York or Chicago or the capitals of Europe, but great art can also survive and thrive in rural America, as well.”

Hancher had a hand in making this happen. Ax has performed there more than half a dozen times over the years, and helped select the new auditorium’s concert grand piano. So after his December 2016 Hancher concert, his manager called Hancher CEO Chuck Swanson to see if he had any recommendations for a free Ax residency.

“He likes to work with professional orchestras,” Swanson said. “He wants to bring those that are very high in standards up to even a higher level. He’s very particular about who he selects to work with. ... We know Orchestra Iowa, we’ve worked with them and we definitely admire the work that they do. So I talked with her a lot about Orchestra Iowa and then left it there. We were thrilled to hear that’s who they chose.”

Ax has a bit of history with the Cedar Rapids ensemble, too. In March 1983, he made what the late Gazette concert critic Les Zacheis deemed a “triumphant debut” at the Paramount Theatre with the Cedar Rapids Symphony, under Christian Tiemeyer’s baton.

“Ax launched an assault on the seldom programmed Brahms Concerto in B-flat, commonly referred to as the Brahms second,” Zacheis wrote. “The choice was a welcome one.”

It’s being welcomed again, 35 years later.

Hankewich wasn’t aware of that earlier programming, but Ax left this year’s programming decision up to Hankewich, saying, “What would you like to play?”

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“He is such a great performer of Beethoven and Brahms, and I immediately knew I wanted to perform the second concerto with him,” Hankewich said. “One of the reasons is, I want his autograph.”

That’s not just his fan-heart fluttering. That piece resonates for him on two very personal levels. It’s the piece he used in courting his now-wife. “I lent her a recording of this piece,” he said. “It’s the first piece we bonded over, so it has sentimental value.”

It also hearkens back to a vivid professional memory for Hankewich.

“I got a chance to work with him when I was in Kansas City, and he was performing the first Brahms piano concerto. It was a week that he was extremely ill, and at the same time, the music director was also ill. After the dress rehearsal, the music director canceled, and I had to go on and perform that weekend without a rehearsal.”

He didn’t have time to panic.

“I remember walking on, and there he was. We performed Brahms’ first piano concerto, and I had him sign my score, so now I want a complete set of autographs.”

The Brahms second is a tour de force, lasting 50 minutes. Hankewich conducted it with guest pianist Norman Krieger in May 2008 at the Paramount, but it’s not a piece Hankewich has tackled at the keyboard.

“It’s totally out of my league,” he said. “Most pianists would agree that this particular concerto is the pinnacle of all piano concerti, both in terms of musical depth and in terms of bravura performance technique. It is such a mountain to climb — the stamina that’s required, as well as the physical prowess to master this work is very rare. (Ax) makes it look so easy — that’s what is just so amazing.”

It’s become his signature piece, so having him perform it at the beginning of his career, and now 35 years later, to hear him perform the work as a more seasoned musician, brings it “full circle,” Hankewich said.

The concerts will open with Elgar’s “In the South” and Strauss’ “Don Juan,” two “swashbuckly” pieces that will “challenge” the orchestra’s musicians. “I wanted to take advantage of the situation,” Hankewich said with a laugh.

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All of the events planned during Ax’s stay in the Corridor — from student concerts and a master class to performances in various venues — leave the maestro speechless.

“I just wish I could find the right words to express how important this is,” he said. “Rarely are we ever going to have an opportunity like this again. Most people of his stature fly over the Midwest between coasts or to Europe and the major concert halls of the world.

“The fact that he heard about us, learned our story and wanted to help and put his credibility behind the work that Orchestra Iowa has done these past few years is just an incredible gesture. To be able to share the stage and make beautiful music, and to share that with the people of our community, this is something that needs to be celebrated and savored.

“This is going to be something.”

If you go

WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: Emanuel Ax Plays Brahms

CEDAR RAPIDS: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (4/14), Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; $16 to $45, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com; 6:45 p.m. Insights with Maestro Timothy Hankewich, Paramount’s Encore Lounge; 9:30 p.m. Post-Concert Meet and Greet, Opus Concert Cafe

SOLON: 7:30 p.m. Sunday (4/15), Solon Center for the Arts, 600 W. Fifth St.; $28 to $54, Tickets.artsiowa.com/production/2691; 6:45 p.m. Insights with Maestro Timothy Hankewich, 9:30 p.m. Post-concert Meet and Greet, both at the Solon venue

EXTRAS: $10 youth/student tickets at the Paramount Ticket Office; concert includes Elgar’s “In the South,” Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Emanuel Ax performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2

RESIDENCY HIGHLIGHTS

Today (4/12): daytime school concerts at the Paramount Theatre; 5:30 p.m. talk and performance during Thursday Nights at Stanley Cafe, Hancher, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

Friday: 6 to 10 p.m. Golden Key Gala at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Center, 350 First Ave. NE; reception, auctions, dinner and performance by Emanuel Ax, Orchestra Iowa pianist Miko Kominami, Orchestra Iowa String Quartet and Ballet Quad Cities; Goldenkeygala.org

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Sunday: morning chamber master class at the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital Hall, Iowa City; 2 p.m. performance at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, 200 Hawkins Dr., Iowa City

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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