Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box
It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.
In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today
As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.
Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.
“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for”
The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.
With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.
As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”
What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.
And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”