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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
"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."