November 5, 2009 / 3:45 PM / 10 years ago

Awash in notes? Piano "drowns" in Andsnes concert

LONDON (Reuters) - It could be one of the most disturbing images in classical music since Charlotte Moorman played the cello in the nude and brought out the New York City vice squad.

Video footage of a black grand piano under tons of water in a Bergen dry dock isn’t going to result in indecent exposure charges against Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and South African artist Robin Rhode, which is what happened to Moorman in 1967 when she played in the buff for Nam June Paik’s “Opera Sextronique.”

But traditional concertgoers may squirm in their seats when they hear Andsnes play Mussorgsky’s extraordinary feat of piano gymnastics “Pictures at an Exhibition” to a video accompaniment by Rhode which includes a piano meeting a Titanic-like fate.

What does it mean, hearing Andsnes, at 39 one of the world’s leading pianists, play the magnificent “Great Gate of Kiev” theme from Mussorgsky’s masterpiece while a screen behind him shows an old German grand being swamped for video art’s sake?

Andsnes, in London for a chamber concert, discusses the upcoming U.S. and European tour of “Pictures Reframed” and whether younger audiences will be attracted to what he and Rhode have concocted.

Q: When Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” in 1874 he was inspired by paintings and sketches by the painter Viktor Hartmann. They were very different from the mix of abstract, cinematic and even goofy images (the “Promenade” theme is accompanied by an upside-down man whose footsteps turn into bubble-like shapes) that Rhode has created. Artistic license?

A: This is a wild, psychologically interesting piece and it has always been in evolution. (French composer Maurice) Ravel orchestrated it, and pianists have always done things to it, rearranged it. (Russian painter) Kandinsky did an art project in the ‘20s with it. So it’s interesting, it’s such a potent piece which always seems to be moved around in so many different ways.

Q: Do people feel they can take liberties with Mussorgsky because he was a hopeless alcoholic, and while he wrote some of the greatest music in the Russian repertoire, he died young at age 42 and maybe he didn’t get his own pieces quite right?

A: It is his fate to be rearranged. I think he was such a modern figure compositionally but he also led a very chaotic life. He was alcoholic and who knows if this music is also the result of delirium. But I saw a print of a manuscript of the first pages (of “Pictures”). I always imagined it must be such chaos but instead it’s neat, like Mozart’s writing. He was quite clear headed in the midst of that.

Q: Robin Rhode’s images are nothing if not striking. Some look like chicken scratchings (“Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”), others like the canvas splatterings of American abstract artist Jackson Pollock (“Catacombs”) and then there is one with images of a train (“The Oxcart/Bydlo”). Why that?

A: He uses very different techniques and a couple of them are like the old super 8 film, the Polish oxcart or the film from Johannesburg of an isolated train station. It is very poor and we have this train arriving and he associates the train with the Polish oxcart, a symbol of struggle and the poor. And for him in South African history he is thinking of the train station, everybody coming to work (from the black townships) and also the burden of European history, the Holocaust. You just see the train. You don’t see any people.

Q: Then there’s that drowned piano. You played the same one, on a mountain peak for a documentary, and now you and Robin have drowned it. Don’t you think music lovers might get up a petition against you, even though you say it’s been dried out and installed in the lobby of a Bergen radio station?

A: I think some of the hard core classical audience will find it difficult because they will feel bombarded by visual images at the same time as the music. But I think the reaction from other groups that are newer to classical music, they may find it easier to get into the music.

I think it’s worth doing this kind of experiment and I think we have to experiment in concerts. This is a very spectacular way, having a film running at the same time, but I think sometimes we should talk to the audience, we should connect in different ways. I love the normal concert, there’s nothing wrong with that, I love the sort of holy feeling when you just have music, but I think there are other ways as well.

Leif Ove Andsnes begins a North American tour of "Pictures Reframed" at Lincoln Center in New York on November 13, plays at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on November 24, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow on November 27 and comes to the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London's South Bank Center on December 4. A CD and DVD is out on EMI this month.

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