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A moving performance by Emanuel Ax

Even the heavens seemed to love Emanuel Ax, lighting up with warm flashes of lightning as the pianist ran through the arpeggiated chords and trills that built to the exciting climax of the first movement of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

Whereupon a sizeable fraction of the audience burst into applause, confusing the majority that adhered to the old dictum that you don't applaud between the movements. This time the applauders were the cognoscenti.

Ax is a tireless advocate of the notion that you should applaud whenever you feel moved to do so. On his blog (emanuelax.WordPress.com) he writes that even Beethoven "expected that if a movement ended with a flourish ... the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed."

He adds he is "taken aback" when a passionate movement ends with "a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs."

Ax first came to national attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition. He'd studied at the Juilliard School after his family immigrated to Canada from his native Poland. In recent years, he's focused much of his attention on 20th-century composers such as John Adams, Christopher Rouse and Krzysztof Penderecki, and on collorations with old pals Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perleman. But Saturday night at Britt he turned to an old favorite, Brahms of which he is a glorious interpreter.

He's written that the Brahms piano concertos "are still terrifyingly difficult for me," and the physical effort was apparent as he sat coatless and tieless on the warm evening and rocked on the piano bench, eyeing Conductor Peter Bay and the orchestra and coming in again and again, the towering crescendoes rising above the orchestral texture, then falling off to long, meditative passages played with the supplest of touch.

Ax was, of course, the evening's centerpiece in his first visit to the Britt hillside in 15 years, and the evening was a real event, as a large, enthusiastic crowd testified.

Assistant Conductor Wesley Schulz and the Britt Orchestra opened the evening with "Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla" from Wagner's "Das Rheingold," and Bay led the orchestra in a rousing turn at Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major.

"Das Rheingold" (1869) was the first of four operas of Wagner's Ring cycle of Germanic mythology. It is bombastic and dramatic, especially near its end, and it's good if you can hear the Teutonic bluster without Wagner's repugnant anti-Semitism coming to mind.

The short (about half an hour) Sibelius symphony was written in 1915 as the composer tried to decide between working in a more modern style or staying with what he'd always done. The first movement gained tempo as it ended with the fast scherzo. The second was calm and the third reversed the first, starting in a rush but ends leisurely with those weird, modernistic, free-standing chords.

But the evening belonged to Ax, whose performance came after the intermission. The long first movement of the Brahms adhered to Classical form, with Ax, playing with technique beyond reproach, taking turns with the orchestra in developing the themes. A new theme was introduced by the bassoon in the second movement, and three more in the rondo of the third.

The last movement included sections in which Ax would develop a theme that would be repeated by the orchestra, with five clearly distinguishable sections, several minor themes, and a reprise with some surprising new elements. Even the coda as it presents variations on the main theme introduces a new element.

Ax's playing was in the foreground at times and integrated into the overall effect of the orchestra at others. In those he played with one eye on Bay and a self-effacing give-and-take attitude that other "stars" could note to their advantage. His playing is direct and magnificent without being ostentatious. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 15 years.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.