Sneaking a chocolate-covered frozen yogurt stick from the freezer, Emanuel Ax settles in front of the TV in the bedroom of his Manhattan co-op to watch a late-night rerun of The Honeymooners. “I identify with Ralph Kramden,” he jokes of the bulbous bus driver Jackie Gleason played in the 1950s series. “I’m overweight and can see myself saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’d love to go on The David Letterman Show, except I’d probably sit there like a lump, mumbling ‘hubba, hubba, hubba,’ just like Kramden.”
With “only” 180 pounds on his 5’10” frame, Ax could really never be anything but a pocket Kramden. But then, Gleason could never be what Ax is: one of the hottest young (33) classical pianists playing today. This summer he has been ubiquitous—a top draw at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, a featured star with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia and the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. His upcoming schedule includes appearances at the Saratoga and Cape Cod festivals as well as a date with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 17,619-seat Hollywood Bowl. His fee: up to $7,000 a performance.
Born in Lvov, a Polish city now a part of the Soviet Union, Ax was established as a concert stage comer in 1974, when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition. Early on, he secured a reputation as perhaps second only to Rubinstein himself in his mastery of Chopin; his recordings of the two concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra received Grammy nominations. But critics also hail his touch with Beethoven, Dvorák and Mozart. Today, says Mostly Mozart Festival director William Lockwood Jr., Ax is that composer’s “leading exponent. It would be hard to imagine the festival without Manny.”
Characteristically, Ax shrugs off praise. Mentioning another notably rotund musician, Ax cracks, “You might say I’m the perfect weight for playing Brahms.” Self-mockery is definitely a part of Ax’s act. Talking about his efforts to play tennis with another young virtuoso, Korean violinist Young Uck Kim, 34, Ax moans, “I dream of hitting a McEnroe forehand, but my game is mostly picking up the ball.” Ax is much more adept at playing chamber music, and his performances with Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among others, are much in demand. Jokes Ax, “If we ever run out of sonatas to play, we can always do a stand-up comic act.” Yo-Yo Ma, a Harvard graduate, grants that Ax has “one of the greatest repertoires of jokes since Mel Brooks,” but he is quick to add that Ax also has “a staggering musical repertoire. He’s one of the most versatile musicians I know.”
Ax was the only child of two Holocaust survivors who married after their original spouses had died in concentration camps. “I was their new life,” he says. Before the war, Ax’s father, Joachim, studied voice in Vienna. Ax himself recalls, “When I was 6, I heard a recording of Rubinstein playing a Chopin concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. From that moment, I decided that was the greatest thing you could do in life.”
He began violin lessons at 7 but soon switched to piano (“I wanted to sit down and be comfortable”). The family emigrated to Canada in 1959 but moved to New York two years later when Emanuel, then 12, won a Juilliard scholarship. In their apartment across from Carnegie Hall, his mother, Hellen, remembers, “I used to look out the window and dream that someday he would play there.” Last year, when Ax gave his first solo recital at Carnegie Hall, she says, “I looked out again, and there was his picture. It was my dream come true.”
Ax went to Columbia, where he got a degree in French in 1970. While continuing his studies at Juilliard, he met Yoko Nozaki, a Japanese piano student. They married in 1974 and now have a son, Joseph Akira, 3½. (One of the few concerts Ax has ever canceled was when Yoko went into labor.)
Ax planned to spend this summer vacationing with his family. But as the bids for appearances started coming in, Yoko explains, “He just couldn’t bear to say no.” When Ax is home, he enjoys quiet evenings with his family, watches The Honeymooners—and eats. “I’m a madman for potatoes,” he confesses. “If I ever write an autobiography, it will be called The Sensuous Potato.” Ralph Kramden, eat your heart out.