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Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos are out to give Beethoven the power-trio treatment

The all-star musicians are coming to the Kennedy Center on March 7 behind their new recording, “Beethoven for Three”

From left, Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, who will be performing at the Kennedy Center on March 7. (Shane McCauley)
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Full disclosure — and some readers may have gleaned this from my predilection for noise and peppered references to tinnitus — I spent more of my formative years in mosh pits than in concert halls. Thus, it only makes sense that I love a power trio.

And trios don’t come more powerful than the one that rolls in to the Kennedy Center on Monday night. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos have close to a decade of collaborative history, going back to their 2014 appearance at Tanglewood to play a program of Brahms piano trios. Ma and Ax had recorded a number of Brahms’ works together, but the addition of Kavakos truly unleashed the power of three.

Three years after Tanglewood, they released their first acclaimed recording, “Brahms: The Piano Trios.” Now they’re getting the band back together to tour their most recent release, “Beethoven for Three,” a recording of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 arranged for piano trio — the former by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, the latter by the contemporary English composer Colin Matthews.

When the trio returns to the Kennedy Center — where last they converged in 2018 for a similarly concentrated program of Schubert and Brahms — they’ll offer an all-Beethoven program that promises to be full of grand gestures and small revelations. The three will take on a trio arrangement (by pianist Shai Wosner) of the “Pastorale” symphony (No. 6), as well as a pair of beloved trios — the “Gassenhauer” (Piano Trio No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 11) and the “Ghost” (Piano Trio No. 5 in D major, Op. 70, No. 1).

Glamour trio Ax, Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma produce thunder at Kennedy Center

I caught up with Ax and Ma last week via Zoom. (Kavakos was beset with lousy Wi-Fi in Rome, where he was performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.) Their recordings demonstrate an almost supernatural chemistry, but a quick Zoom with Ax and Ma revealed another of their virtuosic talents: driving each other crazy. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: I feel like trios right now can serve some of same usefulness as they might in Beethoven’s time — the trio being a very portable way to make music. Is it fair to say trios are having a moment?

Emanuel Ax: Well, really, this was Yo-Yo’s idea …

Yo-Yo Ma: Don’t blame me!

Ax: … because [during the pandemic] there were no orchestra concerts going on. Everything had just simply stopped. And Yo-Yo said, “This is our chance to play things like the Beethoven symphonies for a small group.” And, of course, that was always part of the way these pieces got introduced. The Second Symphony is actually in the complete Beethoven works. It’s a version done by Ferdinand Ries, which [Beethoven] supervised and made changes, too. So that’s actually a very legitimate version of that particular piece.

Q: And the other comes from Colin Matthews?

Ax: Yes, 200 years later. And even though he’s my age, he still didn’t know Beethoven.

Ma: Manny claims to know Beethoven, even though he’s in his early 70s. I don’t know how that happens.

Ax: Well, you’re six years younger. I met [Beethoven] when I was 4; you wouldn’t have. Anyway, I think the reason trios work as a kind of unit is partly because there is the piano — which can play many, many notes at once — there is a bass line from the cello, and there is a treble line from the violin. So, in fact, you can take in quite a lot of the music. Does that sound fair, Yo-Yo?

Ma: It does, and thank you for asking me a question because, as you can tell, Manny is very articulate. And being a pianist, he, you know, he plays most of the notes, so he usually tells me what to do when we play together. And Leonidas, who really doesn’t want to join us because he thinks we’re just …

Ax: He’s too busy working on other, more important things.

Q: It’s a “too cool” thing. I figured.

Ma: I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a really great person, a great violinist, but also a really fantastic conductor. So, as you know, conductors usually tell us what to do. So Manny usually tells me what to do. And I like being told what to do, because I’m the second child — so it’s easy for me to just kind of follow other people. So this trio is an ideal way for us to make music together.

Ax: I think he might want to hear more about the pieces. It is a time-honored way to introduce music in different arrangements, because, for example, in Beethoven’s time, the public was not able to hear these symphonies as written for an orchestra because orchestras were very few and far between. Unless you were in a capital city and you happened to be there just that one time in the two or three years when they were doing that piece of Beethoven, you might not have had a chance to hear it at all.

Q: Did the process of relearning these in this form reveal anything new about them?

Ax: For me, personally, what’s wonderful about it is I get to learn these pieces better than simply from hearing them on a recording. And the music is so amazing; it’s always different textures. And while I know how the tune [of the Fifth] goes — bum ba ba baaa — I don’t know it back and forth. I certainly don’t know how it works. But I think I know that a little better now.

Ma: That’s actually a rock tune. Beethoven actually stole that from a rock musician. He heard it and said, “Hey, this is a really great tune. I’m going to turn it into a classical symphony.” [Here, Emanuel cradles his head in his hands.] But to Manny’s point, when we got the score [of the Fifth] from Colin Matthews and started playing it, it was an experiment, you know, and we actually changed a number of things with Colin’s blessing. I think that’s a lot of how things happen in composition. Even Beethoven, you look at his manuscripts and everything’s crossed out, there are so many things he’s editing and reediting until something feels right. So I think even though we’re playing a piece of music that people know, we’re also experimenting with it. This is a constantly evolving thing.

Q: The last time you did this round of touring as a trio, it was for Brahms. Is there anything qualitatively or experientially different for you about performing the trios of Brahms versus Beethoven?

Ax: No, they’re both impossibly hard. I would have to tell you piece by piece, because the Brahms trios we play are very different, they’re from different parts of his life, and they’re very different even in terms of piano writing.

Ma: So permit me to insert myself. You can forgive me, I hope, for the arrogance of ignorance because Manny knows so much music that when you ask him a question like that, he doesn’t want to generalize. I, on the other hand, being who I am and being a cellist with a much more limited repertoire, I’m happy to generalize.

Q: I have a word count to stay within. I love generalizations.

Ma: I think Brahms as a human being and as a composer, you get the feeling that he is a fellow sufferer. He’s on Earth. He’s trying his very best. He understands life and human nature. He struggles with it. He’s not happy with the way things are, but he also sees great beauty in what could be. Aspirationally, he’s there. But can he take us across the Rubicon? Can he take us to the other side in his music? He’ll take us to the edge and show it to us, but he is on the side of the sufferer. He’s not claiming to be a god.

Beethoven, on the other hand, he will say, “I can take you there. If I’m your guide, I’m going to take you to the mountaintop. You will see the vista from the mountaintop; you don’t have to look at it from the valley.” And, more often than not, he will get you to that place. That’s my arrogant, ignorant stereotype. Manny, now correct me. Because this is the moment when he says, “No … ”

Ax: No! That’s very inspiring. I think it’s beautiful. I think we should leave it at that.

Ma: Yeah. He’s being kind today!

Ax: I really do think that’s the secret of working together — well, pretty much on anything, but certainly in music — if you’re working together and you like each other as people, you’re 95 percent of the way.

Q: I imagine that makes it a lot easier to serve the music.

Ma: I just serve Manny. I don’t really like him very much. But the only thing that I know is that he’s right.

Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos March 7 at the Kennedy Center, washingtonperformingarts.org.

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