It was such a pleasure to welcome Emanuel Ax back as featured soloist for this afternoon's concert. I have been searching for the last several years for an ideal shelter venue at which to present him after the venue which hosted his first Music Kitchen performance changed its services to no longer serve groups, but rather only one on one appointments. Thanks to my new partner, Andrew Heinrich of Project Rousseau, I was connected with the Park Avenue Armory Women's Shelter. The program, located on the 4th floor, has a lovely wood-floored community room that resembles performance spaces for many a little series around the country. They even have a Piano already on site. It turns out that the piano is unfortunately an upright and a technician worked on it tirelessly for over 3 hours to bring it to something remotely resembling concert readiness. But with a shelter staff focused on the life and death issues surrounding homelessness, it puts a piano lacking in concert hall qualities into perspective. Manny Ax, so gracious and more eager to focus on reaching the shelter clients than on the type of piano, quickly transported us all and made us forget that it wasn't a concert grand. For the foreseeable future, due to the downsized elevator and other renovations, bringing such a piano here is an impossible dream.
After our rehearsal was concluded, a few heads poked into our room without any real commitment just yet. So I walked down the hall lined with dormitory rooms playing the Fiddler on the Roof theme. It was like the Pied piper, searching for those whose souls were called by music. I saw many faces look up from mundane tasks, folding bedding, organizing, and brighten into smiles as they recognized the theme. "Fiddler on the Roof!" Some exclaimed. By the time I returned to the community room, it was now full with a nice crowd.
Manny started with a solo work, Schubert theme and variations. He warmly invited their involvement and curiosity by asking if anyone has a birthday coming up. When a few people said yes, he launched into a rendition of the birthday song. He then explained how in different scenarios you might take that same song and write it various different ways- demonstrating variations. He then went on to play the Schubert, taking us on the inspired journey and, again, defying the limitations of the modest piano. Only at the end of the 8 minute piece did the listeners audibly exhale, some accompanied by "wow!" The audience was transfixed and drank in every note. A couple of listeners first asked about story of the music, which we discussed while setting up for the Brahms.
As I like to do, I introduced Brahms through the lens of his struggles - I spoke of how he doubted his work and burned or wall-papered many first attempts to shield them from posterity. I said that even the work we were about to play he wrote as a 20 year old man and came back to revise a full 30 years later. The lesson in all of it is that though we face difficulty and doubt, if we keep going we will get there. Many heads bobbed in the room, clients and staff.
Then on a more fun note, and similarly to Manny's intro, I asked who likes comfort food. Everyone chimed in. Which comfort foods do you like? I heard responses like spare ribs and cheesecake and pizza and chocolate cake. "Well, this piece, especially the first movement," I explained, "is like comfort food for the soul. Something about it just feels right." They really liked that idea and listened with even more eager anticipation. The first response came "what was he thinking there?" An interesting question. I offered, "a young man of 20, just beginning to write chamber music, just met Robert and Clara Schumann, feeling perhaps the awakens of a young man in love and at the beginning of his career." Manny added that he is a bit of a tragic figure due to the lifelong unrequited love and that he remained alone for his whole life. He even suggested that perhaps he allowed his boyish youthful handsomeness to be overtaken by a mass of facial hair as a sign of his despair. Our audience loved the first movement of the Brahms, noticing both the soaring melody and the conflict which seemed to them to be the character of the development. But it was the still and statuesque slow movement which truly captured the listeners. “Wow, I went to Juilliard and I really needed this. It makes me forget all of the problems I have to deal with right now,” said one. After the last movement, the listeners were so exuberantly appreciative of our performance. We quickly took a group photo. A woman I recognized from our last performance (Stravinsky) said to me with tears in her eyes, “You always warm my heart when you come here!”