Making the Piano Grand: Keyboard Titans to Play Kansas City

Great pianists have always been an important part of the Harriman-Jewell Series, and three of the greatest will be featured on the series in the coming months. In March and April, the Harriman-Jewell Series presents three generations of powerful pianism: Jeremy Denk and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields March 2, Emanuel Ax March 16, and Khatia Buniatishvili April 17. All performances are at the Folly Theater.

“Jeremy Denk and Emanuel Ax have been on the series multiple times, and Khatia’s the newcomer to Kansas City,” said Clark Morris, Harriman-Jewell Series executive and artistic director. “It’s kind of interesting thinking about the three of them, because Emanuel Ax is like the grandfather of the group, the mature, seasoned, experienced master. Jeremy Denk is in the middle, he’s the genius of his generation, and Khatia is new and a little mysterious and exciting.”

Denk, who will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, is certifiably brilliant, according to Morris.

“He’s received the McArthur Genius Grant,” Morris said. “A lot of times, Jeremy writes his own program notes on the works he’s performing. I once heard an audience member say, ‘I don’t know if I want him to talk more or play more because I enjoy both so much.’ He has such a fascinating mind and is so introspective about the works he’s performing.”

Emanuel Ax has been a fixture on the Harriman-Jewell Series for decades. He’s appeared in Kansas City as a collaborator, performing with artists like Yo-Yo Ma. But, more often than not, he has given unforgettable solo recitals. For his recital in March, Ax will perform Brahms, Robert Schumann and Ravel as well as a healthy selection of works by Chopin.

Morris notes that Ax was a longtime friend and colleague of Richard Harriman, founder of the Harriman-Jewell Series. After Harriman died in 2010, Ax was in Kansas City within months, donating a concert to benefit Harriman’s scholarship fund. For Emanuel Ax, the Harriman-Jewell Series is more than just a gig.

“Manny has a very sweet personality,” Morris said. “He’s very much a humble and incredibly modest person, but with a great sense of humor. Then, when he takes the piano and commands such amazing mastery over these great works, it just makes you respect him all the more, because he certainly has a reason to walk around with his chest puffed out.”

Khatia Buniatishvili hails from the Central Asia Republic of Georgia, where she was born in 1987.

“She’s a star,” Morris said. “She’s been a star in Europe, and America is starting to figure that out. This will be her first performance in Kansas City. She is a passionate player and willing to take risks, not just for general effect, but because she’s so passionate about the music itself. A lot of times she gets compared to Martha Argerich as someone that is deeply engaged in the music. She gives 100 percent to every work.”

Her program of Schubert and Liszt will give her plenty of passionate material to work with. She’ll be performing a piano sonata by Schubert and three of his songs arranged for piano by Liszt. There are also a couple of pieces by Liszt that are certain to test Buniatishvili’s virtuosic capabilities.

“I think these three concerts fulfill our mission to bring some of the very best examples of artists in the world,” Morris said. They’re similar in a way, but even though they’re three pianists, they’re all unique, individual artists, and I think it will be very rewarding for our audience to hear them.”

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