From fjord to fame: A Norwegian concert pianist hits the world stage

Out of the land of Grieg comes Leif Ove Andsnes. His mission: to compete with ringtones, iTunes, and YouTube for short attention spans.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Musical summitry: Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes played atop a mountain for a documentary about composer Edvard Grieg. (The piano was hoisted by helicopter.) He played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently.
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    Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes
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Norway, ah Norway. The land of rugged mountain men who scale craggy peaks and ... plunk pianos atop them? It may be a scene from a TV documentary, but the handsome guy hammering the ivories cliff-side is no actor. Leif Ove Andsnes is the real thing.

The windswept island of Karmøy off Norway's western coast isn't exactly known for world-class concert pianists. But who better to host a Norwegian TV special about that nation's only well-known composer, Edvard Grieg, than Mr. Andsnes, who, from Karmøy's remote shores, launched an unlikely career of global stardom?

So popular at home that he had to acquire a flat in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, for breathing room, Andsnes occasionally has the opposite problem abroad.

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"I've had some rather arrogant Italian audiences – it takes time to convince them," laughed Andsnes over breakfast in Boston last weekend. "You know, I am coming from cold Norway to their great country with so much culture. But once they are convinced, they are very faithful.

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This weekend, it will be a New York audience he'll try to win over, tackling his biggest project of the year – the nearly hourlong Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 – with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He's coming off a successful Boston stop where he teamed with veteran conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for three well-received performances of Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 2.

Less flashy than young virtuosos like China's Lang Lang, Andsnes is known instead for his depth of feeling.

"There are hundreds of pianists with incredible technique, who can play millions of notes as fast as you want. But when it comes to playing music, you don't see many," says Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos, who has conducted nearly every symphony in the US. "[That] distinguishes [Andsnes] from other people who put emphasis on playing notes."

Under his hands, the piano purrs – captivating audiences not so much with his fingers as with the fervent interpretations they evoke. By turns, he pounces on the keys playfully, dribbles them like an NBA star, and tucks them into bed with a lingering good night.

Andsnes will be more available than ever to US listeners this year. On Jan. 15, EMI Classics released the Grieg documentary he made last year on the centenary of the composer's death. In February, two new CDs will follow – Mozart concertos and Schubert sonatas, which will be highlighted in his spring tour of seven cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

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With 115 concerts this season, Andsnes is living a life he hardly imagined when he came to Norway's Bergen Music Conservatory as a 16-year-old in 1986. Having skipped high school, he was three years younger than most students. "I was like the little mascot of the school," he grins. "Many of the girls developed motherly feelings for me – I think I often misunderstood that."

Though young and socially naive, his skill was immediately apparent. "When he came to the conservatory many said his level of playing and music understanding was better than [that of graduating] students," says Kjell Wernøe, who soon became Andsnes's general manager.

A four-hour journey across a fjord from his island home – where his music-teacher parents had indulged his 5-year-old pestering with a beginner's book of his own, Andsnes began lessons with Czech dynamo Jiri Hlinka.

"He was pushing me ... but I had no idea where that would lead me," says Andsnes. "I was a very shy boy from western Norway, and he was a Slovanic explosion.... For him, music was life and death..... It was very important for me to get that attitude into my system."

He found an eager if somewhat subdued student in Andsnes. The boy would always show up for lessons with a fistful of newly sharpened pencils in his hands, which look as if they'd be more at home gripping an ax than resting on ivory.

"What we had to work the most with was his tendency to take too long to "catch fire" artistically," writes Mr. Hlinka in an e-mail. But Andsnes made the most of Hlinka's expertise – even milking it through the conservatory's thin walls by practicing adjacent to his teacher's studio.

"[Hlinka] would come running in and say, 'No, no, no, you have to use this fingering,' " recalls Andsnes with a chuckle. "So I got all these extra lessons that way.

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At 18, and with some international competition success, Andsnes "became Norway's hero and idol," says Hlinka, who was afraid the success had gone to the boy's head. "I often spent the lessons getting him back down to earth again."

The teen behavior Hlinka disliked subsided, and Andsnes's realization that he could communicate something special matured.

He always had a love for music, says his mother, Sissel Andsnes, who recalls that her son's practice dwindled to only an hour a day when he was 11 and was absorbed more by soccer. But, she says, eventually he developed "a feeling that ... music has chosen him, so he has to interpret [it] in the best way he can. If it makes people happy, he's really happy."

Indeed, in today's world of ringtones, iTunes, and YouTube, securing a global audience for one's music is perhaps no longer the mark of greatness. It's getting people to listen that requires genius.

"I've noticed from the start that when I play concerts, people get quiet, they listen when I play ... that's what I want to achieve even more of," says Andsnes, who has been nominated for a Grammy several times.

Larry Wolfe, a bassist with the BSO for 38 years, compares the pianist's talent to a parent's ability to communicate in just the right tone. The musical moments he chooses to dramatize, observed Mr. Wolfe after rehearsing recently with Andsnes, are carefully chosen and appropriately expressed. It is "believable, it resonates, it's respectful of the listener and of the composer."

Though respectful, Andsnes also tries to bring new insight to pieces that were often written within weeks. "Maybe sometimes I can find secrets that [the composers] didn't necessarily see, even in their own music," explains Andsnes.

With such freshness, he says he's trying to keep classical music from becoming a subculture in a society that caters to short attention spans.

"It's so hard to get people to sit down and listen," he says. "But because of these distractions, this music is quite important today."

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