From a Fast Friendship, a Collaboration

Emanuel Ax, Patrick Stewart
Wall Street Journal

By Corinne Ramey

Actor Patrick Stewart, Pianist Emanuel Ax to Perform 'Enoch Arden'

The bromance began at a dinner table.

The actor Patrick Stewart and the pianist Emanuel Ax were seated together at an awards ceremony for a mutual friend, pianist and conductor André Previn.

Mr. Ax wasn't expecting a movie-star sighting. "My wife and I were pretty knocked out by that. We called the kids," he said, then sighed, sounding lovestruck. "He just turned out to be so nice."

"And you turned out to be so funny," said Mr. Stewart. "Manny [Mr. Ax's nickname] went to the piano, and played some Chopin, and it was excellent. I was already excited."

Mr. Stewart paused to apologize to his visitor: "I know this sounds like a lovefest."

But he didn't stop. "The Chopin finishes, and Manny comes back to the table, sat down next to André, and I heard him say to André," Mr. Stewart said in a stage whisper, "'Sorry about that.'"

"I thought, 'Not only do we have a great American musician here, but we have someone with a British sense of humor,'" Mr. Stewart added. "It was self-deprecating, ironic and spoken while the house was on its feet, applauding."

A few years later, during a dinner in Australia, Mr. Ax mentioned a piece found in the far left field of the classical music canon: Richard Strauss's "Enoch Arden," a work for piano and narrator. On Monday, the two men will perform it at the 92nd Street Y as part of the venue's Poetry Center.

Technically a melodrama, the work is Strauss's musical setting of Tennyson's 1864 epic poem by the same name. The two men have championed the piece, including making a 2007 Sony recording, and performing it, most recently at Tanglewood.

Before the one-night-only performance, Mr. Stewart (73 years old, former "Star Trek" linchpin, currently in "Waiting for Godot" and "No Man's Land" on Broadway) and Mr. Ax (64, Grammy-winning international soloist) met at Mr. Ax's Upper West Side apartment for a rehearsal. Sitting at his dining table, they explained their love for the obscure work.

"I'm a Strauss freak," said Mr. Ax. "It's incredibly seductive."

The work (a tearjerker, he noted) tells the story of Enoch Arden, a fisherman who sets out for work, gets shipwrecked and then comes back years later to find that his wife has married his best friend. It is, more or less, a mini-opera, complete with a tragic love story and tunes that represent different characters.

There are sections with solo narration and others with solo piano, but in much of the work the pacing of Mr. Stewart's narration must align with the music. Strauss referred to the specific words that cue the music as catchwords, said Mr. Ax. "It's kind of up to me to listen to Patrick and fit things in like I'm supposed to," he said.

"Can I turn that around?" Mr. Stewart asked. "It's up to me to listen to Manny."

Mr. Ax, hesitantly: "I guess it's both."

Mr. Stewart, interrupting and stern: "I look on it as a duet, Manny."

Mr. Ax, conciliatory: "It's chamber music."

The performers rely on frequent eye contact, which, for Mr. Ax, is different than performing with an instrumentalist. "I go through a recital with Yo-Yo, and we don't look at each other, period," said Mr. Ax, of his frequent cellist recital partner.

After negotiating the perspiration left by drinks on the table—"I married into a household where coasters are nonnegotiable," said Mr. Stewart, a newlywed—it was time to practice.

Mr. Ax sat at the piano, piled with scores, and the rehearsal began. The themes of the three characters danced under his fingers: the wife, light and fluttering; the best friend, major and regal; and Enoch himself, jagged and thick.

They reached a section where the wife has a dream, and by the end, concludes that Enoch has died, so she is free to marry his friend.

"When lo! Her Enoch, sitting on a height, under a palm tree," intoned Mr. Stewart, his voice deep and full of bravura.

The piano stopped, mid-phrase. "That's where we need about twice as much time," said Mr. Ax.

Mr. Stewart seemed mystified. "There were pauses," he said. "I reaaaaallly stretched that out."

Conducting with his left hand, seemingly without dropping a note, Mr. Ax demonstrated a series of cues.

They tried again. Mr. Stewart placed his part precisely, his voice musical though he wasn't singing. The piano chords pulsed evenly beneath.

"That worked out great," said Mr. Ax, grinning.

Said Mr. Stewart, "Let's do it once more."