Prelude to Fame: Emanuel Ax at the Phillips, 1967

Sunday Concerts, the Phillips’s time honored music series, began in 1941. Before then music had always been a part of life at the museum, but the formal inauguration of the series aimed to bring the same level of ambition and experimentation that Duncan Phillips had for the visual arts, to music. The charge was led by the inimitable Elmira Bier, Duncan Phillips’s secretary from 1924 onwards. Phillips could scarcely have found a stronger advocate in Bier, who although not formally trained in music, schooled herself out of necessity across a broad range of artistic areas. Her lack of musical preconceptions may have been her strongest suit, as it led her to take risks, especially in her encouragement of young artists. This remains a central tenet of the concert series today as we carry the torch into the current 73rd season and beyond.

This spirit of openness and support for young artists is wonderfully encapsulated by letters of correspondence from 1967 between Bier, Polish pianist and teacher Mieczyslaw Munz, and his pupil, an eighteen-year-old Emanuel Ax. Fast forward to today and Emanuel Ax is regarded as one of the finest pianist of his generation who has collaborated with many of the major orchestras and conductors. He has won several Grammy Awards for his recordings, and along with a slew of competition wins and honorary doctorates, also teach at the Julliard School in New York.  But in 1967, he was a virtually unknown young Polish émigré studying under Munz at Julliard. Munz wrote to Elmira Bier in March 1967 suggesting that she consider Ax for a performance that season, mentioning his extraordinary qualities, and that the late Arthur Rubinstein thought highly of him. Bier wrote back:

Letter from Elmira Bier to Mieczylaw Munz, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax responded and made a recording, sending it to Elmira with a short but revealing disclaimer:

Emanuel Ax to Elmira Bier, undated. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

One can imagine Elmira and her staff huddling around an early compact cassette player listening to Ax’s DIY recording. We do not know what he recorded, but clearly it was enough to make an impression on the discerning music director, who wrote back in May of that year offering Ax a Sunday afternoon performance.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, May 18, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax wrote back soon after with his ambitious program: two Scarlatti sonatas; the Sonata, Op. 57, Appasionata, by Beethoven; two Liszt transcriptions of songs by Schubert; the Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116 by Brahms; L’isle Joyeuse by Debussy; and Chopin’s Etude, Op. 10, No. 8 and  Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. It was certainly a brave and auspicious choice of works, and shows a musical maturity that belied his young age. He was still a student cutting his teeth on the circuit when he performed at the Phillips, and it is a mystery what the audience would have thought about this young man, who in just 7 years’ time would go on to win the first ever Arthur Rubinstein competition in 1975, catapulting him to international stardom. If they were anything like Elmira Bier, they would have welcomed his ambition and passion for music-making with open arms.

There was one last piece of motherly advice that the worldly wise Elmira had for the young aspiring concert pianist, advice that we are sure did not go unnoticed.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist

Phillips Flashback: April 7, 1940

Brochure for Emotional Design in Painting, 1940. Phillips Collection Archives.

Brochure for Emotional Design in Painting, 1940; front cover and inside page. Phillips Collection Archives.

April 7 is opening day for C. Law Watkins’s education exhibition, Emotional Design in Painting. 72 works are shown, grouped under 28 motifs and design concepts. Watkins, associate director of the gallery and director of the art school, hangs old masters on loan from museums nationwide alongside contemporary works in a didactic sequence, exploring the expressive function of diagonals, organic forms, motion, and shape.

Gallery E in the House.

Gallery E in the House.

Gabriele Orozco's Zapatistas, 1931, on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, displaying the "diagonals" motif.

Gabriele Orozco’s Zapatistas, 1931, on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, displaying the “diagonals” motif.

To illustrate "verticals" Georgia O'Keeffe's Night in New York, is hung near a Chinese scroll from the Ming Dynasty.

To illustrate “verticals” Georgia O’Keeffe’s Night in New York is hung near a Chinese scroll from the Ming Dynasty.

Phillips Flashback: November 30, 1984

D.C.’s reputation for tennis shoes with sensible suits and other fashion sadness has lifted a bit as the city has recently achieved the once far-away status of “cool”. But was it a hip place back in 1984? I’d guess not. In the thick of the Reagan years, Fodor’s description of the city noted that sales of women’s white gloves were skyrocketing. But what about the fashion barometer at the Phillips? Well, while processing archival materials from the Board of Trustees, archives assistant Colleen Hennessey stumbled on a real gem:  Karl Lagerfeld, the mayor of the world’s beautiful people, presented a fashion show at the Phillips on November 30, 1984. Here’s the description:

On Friday, November 30 Karl Lagerfeld will be at The Phillips Collection to present his spring designs. This is their first showing outside Paris. The evening will include the fashion presentation in the Music Room and a seated dinner on the second floor of the annex. The entire evening is being underwritten by Saks Jandel, Mr. Ernest Marx, President. Tickets are $275 per person. Letter invitation are being mailed now.

Mr. Lagerfeld, anytime you’d like a reunion, we’re here for you.

A selection from the full-page coverage of the event in Washington Dossier magazine, February 1985. Photo by John Whitman. Clipping from Phillips Collection Archives.

A selection from the full-page coverage of the event in Washington Dossier magazine, February 1985, shows Laughlin Phillips and his wife Jennifer with Saks Jandel’s Ernie Max and the famous designer. Photo by John Whitman. Clipping from Phillips Collection Archives.