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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
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Emanuel Ax: Teenager in love
Pianist Emanuel Ax finds the romance in an early Chopin concerto
Ax makes sense of 'millions of notes.'
Ax makes sense of 'millions of notes.'

Chopin's love for an old flame will warm the air this weekend when the Madison Symphony Orchestra and pianist Emanuel Ax present his "Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor" in Overture Hall. The F minor is numbered as the second piano concerto, but it is the first of the two that Chopin composed between 1828 and 1830. He wrote the concerto at 18 while madly infatuated with the young singer Konstancja Gladkowska. Too shy to approach Konstancja himself, Chopin poses a question in a letter to a friend: "Does she love me, does she not?"

The F minor piano concerto is one of a kind. Not even Chopin himself could top it. After the orchestral intro, the piano grabs our attention with a single octave in the high register that glitters like Venus in the night sky. As the music comes to earth in a tumble of notes, Chopin sets the mood for the story that unfolds.

"This is a wonderfully moving piece," says Ax. "It speaks to the unbelievable genius of Chopin at 18. We can't quite fathom it. He's like Einstein. There are millions of notes, and they're hard notes that have to sound free and easy, not like you're struggling. And then you want to create an atmosphere."

Nowhere is atmosphere needed more than in the slow movement. Except for a stormy middle section, this movement is quiet and personal. Through it we enter the daydreams of a teenager exploring his feelings about himself and the world without shame or self-consciousness. The third movement is a party with dancing, fun and abandon. There is even a hint that folks might be a little tipsy in some of the sliding offbeats. The concerto moves away from the formulaic structure of the classical symphony and melody becomes the guiding light.

Ax and the concerto go back to his childhood in Poland, where he walked along the same paths that Chopin walked in Warsaw.

"I've loved the concerto ever since I heard a recording of it that my family owned when I was 7 or 8. When I was 16, I learned it with my teacher, Mieczyslaw Munz."

Ax won the Artur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1974, and one of the winner's perks was a little coaching on the concerto from Rubinstein himself. Ax's poetic insight and gossamer touch should draw us in through the millions of notes and show us the sensitive, fun-loving teen who was Chopin.

The concert opener is Manuel de Falla's music for the ballet The Three Cornered Hat, which premiered in London in 1919. The story is based on a comedy about a chief magistrate whose badge of office is his three-cornered hat. He's a flirtatious man who meets his match when he goes after the town miller's wife, who is just as flirtatious, but smarter. The score draws on Andalusian folk music reminiscent of warm nights drunk with the sweet scent of flowers and the rhythms of Spanish dance music.

Vaughan Williams' "Symphony No. 2" (A London Symphony) will close the concert with sounds of the city. Williams, who believed that musicians should draw inspiration from the life around them, fills the symphony with the sounds familiar to him in London - sailors singing a shanty, the chimes of Big Ben or a street barrel organ playing out of tune. Quiet places are juxtaposed nicely against the hubbub. As the great-great-grandson of pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, Williams inherited an uncanny visual sense and used the composer's tools to create mental paintings that stay with us long after the door to the concert hall clicks shut.

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