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