Piano maestro Emanuel Ax’s performs Liszt and Schubert at UNLV concert

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Concertgoers await for the performance minutes before Ax takes the stage. Photo by Alex Romero.

Bright lights descended upon the stage within the Ham Concert Hall as renowned pianist Emanuel Ax took to the stage. 

Appearing from beyond stage right, dressed in a classic black and white tuxedo, Ax took a seat at the lone grand piano and played the keys into the night, a one-man show in himself. 

Ax, a Grammy-winning classical pianist, visited UNLV this past Thursday for an expert performance of classical piano pieces. The program consisted of pieces from the Romantic period of music, featuring Austrian composer Franz Schubert and Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt. 

The evening began with a performance of “Piano Sonata in A Major” by Schubert. Featuring beautiful runs and back-and-forth complementary motifs, the piece took the audience on a journey through its three movements. Even from afar, viewers could see Ax’s masterful technique on full display in how he moved up and down the keys. 

After an applause, Ax followed this performance with a few words regarding the next piece, “Four Songs,” also by Schubert, though transcribed by Liszt. 

The first three movements paint pictures of a man losing his love. The music reflected this, as the movements consisted of a mix of driving melodies intertwined with slower, somber moments of reflection and loss. 

The last movement, however, was a tonal shift in its move towards a happier ending for both the man and his lost love, ending the piece on a triumphant note. 

The next piece, “Vallee d’Obermann” by Liszt, is a musical account of his travels through Switzerland and Italy. Reflective of the mountains and valleys Liszt observed, the piece starts slow and doleful before gradually lightening, ending on a glorious note through tempo and octave shifts.

During his brief description before playing the piece, Ax himself joked that it was appropriate to play this piece in Las Vegas due to the difficult octaves, saying that it was a gamble on how many he’d successfully hit. 

Following an intermission, Ax returned to the stage to play the final piece of the performance, “Piano Sonata in B flat major” by Schubert. In the longest piece of the show, each movement had different tempos and octaves to keep audiences engaged. 

The first two movements were moderately upbeat as different melodies meshed together to create motifs of grandeur and dread. The third, shorter movement primed audiences for the end of the performance, as the piece ended once more on a victorious finale, complete with accented notes, driving tempos and flowing crescendos. 

A celebratory applause erupted from the audience at the performance’s conclusion as those in attendance gave a standing ovation for Ax’s performance. 

Jenny Han, a master’s student in piano performance at UNLV, who attended the concert said, “The concert was amazing. Because of the pandemic, we didn’t get to see too many guest artists come to town and play live performances, so to see Emanuel Ax was refreshing and inspirational, especially as a classical pianist.” 

One of her favorite pieces was the first piece, “Piano Sonata in A Major,” as she shared that she had previously played it before when she was younger. 

“Seeing a piano maestro playing that piece just gave me a whole different perspective,” Han said.

“He [Ax] had wonderful control of his piano touch, and with me being a pianist, that’s something I want to learn more. Witnessing that live gave me perspective and insight as that’s something I want to work on and hone in myself,” Han said regarding Ax’s performance, particularly during the last movement. 

“To see and hear professionals live is just a whole different experience. Even though this music had no words and just sounds, you get a new emotional rise from witnessing it live. But that’s the beauty of music,” added Han. 

For future concert dates of UNLV ensembles and visiting performers, visit the UNLV School of Music events calendar on its website.

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