Leif Ove Andsnes conquers Chicago
Grieg’s beloved Piano Concerto celebrates a birthday
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
He has performed on the top of a mountain and in most of the great concert halls of the world. At age 49, Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is undisputedly at the top of his game, a much celebrated “rock star” of the international classical music scene. And on Sept. 19, together with Maestro Riccardo Muti and the world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he lived up to his reputation, reaching new heights in an unforgettable performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16.
The occasion was opening night of the orchestra’s new season and the 150th birthday of the premiere of the concerto by Norwegian pianist Edmund Neupert in Copenhagen on April 2, 1869, with Holger Simon conducting. While Andsnes had not played it for 12 years, it is a composition well known to him. After all, it is Grieg’s only piano concerto, one of his most popular works, and among the most popular piano concerti of all time. And it happens to have been Andsnes’ breakthrough piece. He learned it when he was only 17, when he was studying in Bergen and was asked to step in at the last minute to play it at the annual Bergen International Festival, where it is still a tradition at the close of the festivities. That was in 1988—and the rest is history.
As the new Editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, I had the incredibly good fortune to meet with Andsnes in his dressing room after the morning rehearsal for the concert. What ensued was a very friendly, comfortable conversation with one of the world’s most eminent artists, full of insights and inspiration.
Andsnes hails from the island of Karmøy on the west coast of Norway, an area that has very strong connections to my own hometown, Seattle, where a large number of fishermen settled in the 1950s and ’60s. Andsnes has performed in Seattle in the past, and we laughed about how Norwegian the Ballard neighborhood still is and the delicious fishcakes the Karmøy Club served at a reception they hosted for him. Immediately I understood how proud Andsnes is of his roots and how proud he is to be a Norwegian.
Both of his parents were music teachers, and both played the piano. For as long as he can remember, students came into their home to take private lessons. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and soon he, too, joined in as one of the students. He continued to study locally throughout those early years and remembers playing some of the easier Grieg pieces around the age of 7 or 8. It was only around the age of 13 that he came into contact with professional musicians. It was about this time that he had the feeling that music would be his life. “It was my language, my vocabulary, my room, my own space,” he said, and he felt quite early on that he had to communicate this feeling to others.
Fortunately for the young pianist, he found the right mentor, when at age 15, he met the renowned Czech Professor Jiri Hlinka at the Bergen Music Conservatory, now known as the Grieg Academy. “He was so passionate,” Andsnes remembers, “Music was life and death to him.” The master convinced his protégé that he could someday tell big stories with his music, and above all, he persuaded him not go to attend a regular gymnasium (equivalent to an American high school). Instead he was to move to Bergen and start at the Bergen Music Conservatory. Hlinka understood that the years between ages 15-20 are incredibly important in a musician’s development, and the decision to move to Bergen in the 1970s was pivotal for Andsnes. Leif Ove Andsnes became Hlinka’s most famous student, and over the years, the two musicians have remained in close contact.
A special feeling for Grieg
Andsnes is today considered to be one of the world’s preeminent interpreters of Edvard Grieg, although long periods can go by when he focuses on other composers. The list is long, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, as well as a host of contemporary composers. The pianist does not restrict his musical interests, and his “favorite” composer tends to be the one he is working on at any given moment—the day we met, that was Grieg. I talked to him in more depth about his relationship to Norway’s most famous composer and his piano concerto.
In the past, Andsnes has gone to great lengths to immerse himself into the life and music of Edvard Grieg to better understand the meaning of the music he will convey to his audiences. First of all, he studies the musical score of any given piece down to the very last detail. While most everything a performer needs can be found in the score, Andsnes has also tried to get to know the person behind the music by studying Grieg’s letters, diaries, and other documents found in the archives, and listening to Grieg’s 1903 commercial recordings of his own work. For a performance of the Ballade in G minor, Andsnes even made a documentary with Norwegian television that traces the composer’s journeys through Europe in a “conversation with the past” to understand the impulses and influences that shaped his work.
And, of course, Andsnes has been a frequent visitor and performer at Grieg’s home at Troldhaugen in Bergen, where he has played both the big Steinway in the Troldsal concert hall and Grieg’s own 1892 Steinway inside the composer’s villa. He underlined that there is an intimate atmosphere in Grieg’s living room that is felt in the composer’s music. While a composer like Beethoven can create “castles in the air,” Grieg is at home in small houses and cottages that make you feel cozy and comfortable.
For Andsnes, there is always a feeling of “homecoming” when playing Grieg. He believes that “the music speaks directly to your heart in a very intimate way,” a quality not found in so many composers. “You can recognize Grieg after only a few bars: there is a feeling of signature and personality,” he said. There are “wonderful harmonies” in his pure, folk-inspired music, a “childlike quality,” with no big arias. This is also the beauty of the piano concerto, which is a “mixture of the childlike and big Romantic gestures.”
The Piano Concerto
I asked Andsnes what he finds in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor that has made it endure as a perennial favorite of concertgoers for over 150 years. For the pianist, it is the combination of youthful freshness, confidence, and passion that is so appealing: Grieg was “a young man who wanted to conquer the world.” There is no weakness or doubt in a piece that is full of “intimacy and childlike beauty.” Only 24 years old when he composed it, Grieg did conquer the world with the piece—a success that, to some extent, he was never able to repeat. In later years, he struggled more with his music, as self-awareness and doubt began to creep into his life. Andsnes points to Grieg’s other great masterpiece, the Peer Gynt Suite, which, in contrast, took two years to compose.
For the performance with the Chicago Symphony, Maestro Muti and Andsnes chose to take the composer’s last word on the concerto, working with the Percy Grainger edition, completed just before Grieg’s death in 1903. The elder Norwegian composer saw himself as a mentor to the much younger Australian-born Grainger, and the two worked closely together on the score. It is a very interesting edition of the concerto, with Grainger’s ideas noted with the initials “PG,” and Grieg’s approvals of his ideas noted with “EG.” Later, toward the end of his own life, Grainger discussed the edition at length, recalling the many conversations that he and Grieg had. The edition shows Grieg’s evolving experience of the piece and may be considered his final word on it.
Most importantly, in interpreting any piece, Andsnes points out that there needs to be a balance between technical skill and an emotional feeling for the music. “You have to have your heart in everything you do,” he told me, and play with “a sensitivity to the keyboard.” You have a “feeling of a sound inside of you,” and then you “have to make the piano sing, putting all your training and technical knowledge to work.”
I asked Andsnes about what might be in store that evening with Riccardo Muti behind the podium. While the concerto is a work that the Norwegian has played many times, the Italian-born Muti has only conducted it a few times and was looking at it with fresh eyes and ears. Working with every conductor is different, and Muti decided to bring something new to his interpretation. With the opening fanfare, he wanted the wind players to play softly and mysteriously, as in a whisper, to create a feeling of uncertainty around what’s to come. The piano and orchestra were to engage in an intimate conversation with one another as the excitement starts to mount.
Triumph in Orchestra Hall
And it was no less than thrilling to listen to Andsnes, Muti, and the Chicago Symphony play Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor that evening. It had been over a decade since I had been inside that ornate historical hall with its extraordinary acoustics. For me, it also felt a bit like a homecoming.
From the moment I heard the opening flourish based on the motif of a falling minor second, followed by a falling major third—so typical of the folk music of Norway and making it one of the most memorable pieces in the classical repertory—I was on the edge of my seat. The performance was executed to perfection from all sides, with elegance, power, and insight. It was a divine and transcendent musical experience, and when Maestro Muti’s baton went down, the entire audience went wild.
The clapping and roar persisted, as the crowd brought Andsnes and Muti back to the stage no less than four times. Finally, we were satisfied with an encore from our favorite Norwegian pianist. The playful tones of “Ganger (Norwegian March),” Op. 54, No. 2, one of Grieg’s 66 short solo piano works collected under the umbrella title of “Lyric Pieces” sounded out through the hall. It was more glorious Grieg, played only the way Andsnes can play it, and the tune stayed in my head all night and for days to come—I still feel like dancing.
A final note
At the evening’s end, I thought back on my earlier conversation with the virtuoso pianist. For someone at the top of his game, who seems to have done it all, Andsnes maintains that he “still has a lot left to do.” For him, the advantage is that he plays an instrument that has so much music written for it: all his dreams are related to music he hasn’t yet played. This can make it hard to choose, but it is his curiosity and love of music and of sharing it with others that drives him on. Looking ahead, there is much for us all to look forward to, as Norwegian pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes continues his marvelous career.
Visit Leif Ove Andnes’ official website at www.andsnes.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.