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Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma entrance Zellerbach Hall with endearing, seraphic charm

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JANUARY 31, 2023

Accomodating a hall of anticipating fans, Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma sauntered across the smoky gray stage before taking their seats in a triangular formation. Pianist Ax picked up the microphone, promptly outlining the history of the night’s program: an ardent selection of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and Piano Trio in B-flat major. 

Notorious for composing music for his patrons, Beethoven wrote Symphony No 4. and Piano Trio for Prince Lichnowsky and Archduke Rudolph, respectively. As Ax articulated, classical music was often a luxury in the early 18th century, and aristocrats were a part of the elite group that could afford to commission and sponsor classical music events. 

Briefly, the musicians, especially violinist Kavakos, explained their passions and quest to find affirmation in the music life. As the stage lights dimmed and the restless crowd settled down, the feathery, wispy piano set off the first piece of the night: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60. 

The first of the piece’s four movements, the adagio introduction features a dark undertone of sweet, staggered eighth notes slurring into a diminuendo, a gradual decrease in volume. Ax anchored the “Adagio” movement with his steadfast chords, as Kavakos and Ma held long half notes. Before the audience could fully savor the introspective notes of the adagio, they were swept up into the juxtaposing, demanding rhythm of the Allegro Vivace, a lively and bright contrast to the previous melody. 

The spotlight turned to the violin and cello as the tempo sped up; Kavakos and Ma swayed back and forth in conversation with each other as the melody unfolded, bouncing off each sway of their bows. The robust theme was highlighted by the deep, syncopated cello rhythm and the fairy-like piano exposition, and Kavakos executed his contrasting brisk and sustained beats with springy wrist flicks. Along with the unraveling Allegro vivace, Ma and Kavakos beamed blissfully at each other, relishing in the sounds of their own creation. 

Another favorite of the night, the second movement in adagio most prominently featured a sparkling cello cantabile, gracefully interpreted by Ma. His bow, playful and light, suddenly transitioned to a firmer grip, and the bow hairs caved into the string, encompassing a more serious tone. As Ma’s fingers traversed down the fingerboard, his musical prowess was characterized by each sway of his body and cello, the vigorous vibrato a token of his authenticity and expression.

 Although the original score was written for an orchestra of flutes, oboes and a variety of other string and wind instruments, Kavakos, Ax and Ma offered a fulfilling rendition of the symphony; the addition of other winds was volitional. 

Returning from a restful intermission, the audience was welcomed back by Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97. Commonly referenced as “The Archduke Trio,” this piece was one of the dozen compositions Beethoven dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, his patron and later student. Similar to the previous piece, “Archduke” is structured in four movements, remaining in allegro for three out of the four movements, with the penultimate movement being andante, a slower and more moderate tempo.

“Allegro Moderato,” the last movement, was characterized by twinking piano triplets in conversation with pianissimo string trills that gradually took on a ritardando, a gradual decrease in speed. With cascading intervals, the piece ended on striking, steady yet energetic chords. As the night concluded, Ma, Kavakos and Ax collectively rose from their chairs, patting each other amiably to congratulate their respective hard work before subsequently walking off stage. 

The halls of Zellerbach were enveloped in a warm, soothing presence, though a tinge of anticipation once again arose from the audience. Almost as if the crowds’ wishes were heard, Ax, Kavakos and Ma graced the stage, returning with an encore: Beethoven’s Allegretto ma non troppo from Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2. The slow, encompassing melody was joyous, soothing, euphonious — an immaculate finale to the concert. 

As the night finally drew to an end, each sweet, sustained bow flick and dancing piano key served as a reminder to the audience of our modern luxury and privilege of appreciating the classical repertoire.

Contact Alyssa Chen at 


JANUARY 31, 2023