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Ax was born in a Polish-Jewish family in Lviv, Ukraine (then in the USSR) to Joachim and Hellen Ax, both Nazi concentration camp survivors. Ax began to study piano at the age of six; his father was his first piano teacher. When he was seven the family moved to Warsaw, Poland (where he studied piano playing at Miodowa school) and then two years later to Winnipeg, Canada where he continued to study music, including as a member of The Junior Musical Club of Winnipeg. In 1961 the family moved to New York City and Ax continued his studies at the Juilliard School under Mieczysław Munz. In 1970 he received his B.A. in French at Columbia University and became an American citizen. In 1973 he won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions.
Ax is a particular supporter of contemporary composers and has given three world premieres in the last few seasons; Century Rolls by John Adams, Seeing by Christopher Rouse and Red Silk Dance by Bright Sheng. He also performs works by such diverse figures as Sir Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, Joseph Schwantner and Paul Hindemith, as well as more traditional composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin.
Ax has been the main duo recital partner of cellist Yo-Yo Ma since August 3, 1973 when the pair performed its first public recital at the Marlboro Music School and Festival. They have recorded much of the cello/piano repertoire together. Ax also played quartets briefly with Ma and violinists Isaac Stern and Jaime Laredo. Before the quartet had to disband in 2001 due to the death of Stern, they recorded works for Sony by Brahms, Fauré, Beethoven, Schumann and Mozart. Ax is also a featured guest artist in a documentary film about the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Peter Oundjian, Five Days in September; the Rebirth of an Orchestra.