Norwegian pianist tickles DC’s ivories

Brilliant performance by Leif Ove Andsnes, “one of the most gifted musicians of his generation”

Photo courtesy of Leif Ove Andsnes Leif Ove Andsnes impressed a crowd at the Kennedy Center this November.

Photo courtesy of Leif Ove Andsnes
Leif Ove Andsnes impressed a crowd at the Kennedy Center this November.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes is, according to the New York Times, “a pianist of magisterial elegance, power, and insight.” The Wall Street Journal called him “one of the most gifted musicians of his generation.” NPR critic Brian Wise writes that Andsnes is “known for his thoughtful musicianship and unassuming manner” and that he “projects an image of personal balance and earnest curiosity.”

Andsnes received a standing ovation following his performance before a sold-out audience in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in Washington, D.C., on November 14. His rich and varied program included pieces by Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin.

Andsnes gave the audience a rare opportunity to hear Sibelius played by a concert pianist. An accomplished violinist rather than a pianist, the composer’s many works for the piano are unfortunately seldom played and then usually only by amateurs.

In addition to Sibelius, the program included Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3; pieces from Debussy’s Estampes and Études; and Chopin’s Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, and Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52.

Andsnes finished with two encores, the second of which was certainly the most powerful and emotional moment of the evening. He dedicated Chopin’s “Eroica” to the people of Paris who, just the day before, had suffered the brutal terrorist attacks throughout their beautiful city. His passion in playing “Eroica” made it clear that he felt at one with the French in their grief and outrage.

Andsnes was born in 1970 on the island of Karmøy, off the southwestern coast of Norway. He studied at the Bergen Music Conservatory under the renowned Czech professor Jirí Hlinka and currently performs about 60 concerts a year around the world.

One would naturally expect Andsnes to be a fan of Grieg, and he definitely is. He has been playing Grieg since childhood, that is, for three decades. “I’ve always loved Grieg,” he says, “not just because I’m Norwegian, but because very few composers speak so directly to your heart, and especially in the smaller pieces.”

Andsnes made a very well-received CD, “Grieg Lyric Pieces” (EMI Classics, 2002). He played these pieces on Grieg’s own piano at Troldhaugen, the composer’s villa, on the outskirts of Bergen. It was, of course, a dream come true for the pianist.

Norwegian television produced a DVD documentary, “Ballad for Edvard Grieg,” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. In this documentary Andsnes presents a guide to the life and music of Grieg. He visits many of the places where Grieg lived (e.g. Copenhagen, Rome, and Paris) and performs many of Grieg’s most celebrated works.

His performance of Grieg’s very difficult “Ballade, Op. 24,” is the highlight of the documentary. Andsnes plays it on a grand piano that had been lifted by helicopter to the very edge of a mountain in Norway’s Hardanger Range. It was a breathtaking experience for the pianist! (This DVD is available for purchase from amazon.com and for rental from netflix.com.)

Andsnes has always been intrigued with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” He describes this music in an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel on August 21, 2009:

“This is an iconic piece of music. It’s possibly the most famous Russian piece for solo piano ever written. … It’s unbelievable that it’s written in 1870. It’s such a modern concept. It’s also a piece of theater. It has this narrative of this person walking into an exhibition space, and you almost hear his reaction to what he has seen. So it’s emotionally very strong.”

Andsnes invited the South African artist Robin Rode to paint images of the pictures as he “heard” them in Mussorgsky’s music. He then performed the work surrounded by seven large video screens showing these images. The video of the performance, “Pictures Reframed,” then went on tour.

Beethoven is another one of Andsnes’s favorite composers. He commented that, “Beethoven’s music is for me the most human and deeply spiritual music there is.”

He decided to devote several years to Beethoven and he thus created his “Beethoven: A Journey” project. In 2012, the first year of this multi-year project, he toured with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan.

His tour was extremely successful. The Guardian praised his London performances by saying, “What these performances also have is … a real sense of enjoyment in playing, and the business of communicating that enjoyment to an audience.”

His concerts in Prague were recorded live by Sony Classical. The resulting album, “The Beethoven Journey,” was named the Best Instrumental Album of 2012 on iTunes. Gramophone magazine named it the recording of the month for November 2012.

This outstanding Norwegian pianist has made a name for himself all over the world and is definitely a musician to follow with great attention. If he performs in your area, don’t miss the opportunity to hear him. It will be an experience you will never forget. And you will be proud to be Norwegian!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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