Emanuel Ax, widely considered one of today’s most gifted pianists, gets heady praise from conductor Fabien Gabel. “His playing is absolutely stunning,” Gabel tells us via telephone from his native France. “He has a light touch, the best I’ve ever heard. He’s extremely precise and extremely musical. There’s something very special to his sound. He’s perfect, really.”
Ax, who has seven Grammy Awards to his credit, performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Houston Symphony with Gabel at the podium this weekend. Beethoven was just 25 when he wrote this piano concerto, and while the work echoes the styles of Mozart and Haydn, it’s rife with the harmonic shifts that became Beethoven’s musical signature.
Local audiences have seen Ax perform with the Houston Symphony several times over the years, and most would agree with Gabel’s “perfect, really” assessment.
The second half of the program features Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, often called a “pastoral” symphony because of the work’s gentle melodies.
This is the first of two turns as guest conductor that Gabel makes with the Houston Symphony this season. The music director of both the Quebec Symphony and Orchestre Français des Jeunes, Gabel returns in May. "This concert, the Brahms and Beethoven, is pretty classical," he says. "But when I come back in May, I play a new piece by the composer-in-residence Jimmy Lopez and also some pieces by Beethoven that are rarely played in America. I’m looking forward to that.”
Gabel has been labeled a leader of a new generation of conductors who mix well-loved classics, such as the Beethoven and Brahms we’ll be hearing in Houston, with lesser-known classical works and new orchestral compositions. It’s a practice he finds the Houston Symphony enthusiastically embraces.
"It’s good for an orchestra to balance old and new, the familiar and also something unusual. It’s good for the audience," he says. "The orchestra is doing new things and rarely performed music. It’s going beyond what is—I won’t say what is expected, but what is usual. That’s exciting. It’s exciting, I know, for the musicians and for me. I hope it’s exciting for the audience as well."