Leif Ove Andsnes: Quarter Century in the Spotlight

Trista Bernstein on January 25, 2012
Leif Ove Andsnes
Leif Ove Andsnes

Leif Ove Andsnes has been in the spotlight for over two decades. His long list of accomplishments includes eight Grammy nominations, five Gramophone Awards, and the prestigious honor of Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. He has performed with the world’s best orchestras on the world’s most famous stages. He has guided countless students into the realm of professional music at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo and the Royal Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. His resume is long and awe-inspiring, but when my call was answered at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, I found the famous Leif Ove not just coming fresh off a performance, but rather a gentle man in love with his piano.

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You’ve just embarked on a very ambitious tour schedule that takes you into the better part of this year. With all of these cities that you’re visiting, are you ever able to play tourist?

Sometimes; it depends. If I’m for several days in a place I will try to explore the city, maybe see a museum or something else. But, of course, I’m focused on my work. There seems to be a routine every day — work and the concerts — and there’s not all that much time for sightseeing.

With all of these cities, all the long flights, and different hotel rooms, have you developed any tricks to help you unwind at the end of the day?

This has become my life now. I’ve been touring for over 20 years, and I’m very used to the routine of being alone in a hotel room and concentrating on my work. I have at home now a daughter who is 1½ years old, and when I get home I find it more difficult to get to concentrate on the work. Actually, when I’m on tour it’s a good chance for me to really go deep into what I’m doing and prepare for the concert, and also prepare for future things. I find when I’m at home now I want to spend time with my daughter, and then I don’t have as much time as I would want for practicing and for work.

Does your daughter enjoy music, or is it too early to tell?

When I’m on tour it’s a good chance for me to really go deep into what I’m doing and prepare for the concert.

She certainly enjoys singing. She wants to sing the whole day, and she wants us to sing for her. I think that’s important. I was singing myself when I was a child. She sings without having many words yet.

You are approaching the 25th anniversary of your debut concert. Can you tell me what you remember most about that first concert?

I remember very well, actually. It was a kind of epiphany for me, of what a feeling it was to give a whole recital — to prepare for a whole recital. I felt that I had the ability to draw in an audience and to keep them there for a two-hour program. That was overwhelming for me. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I just had this feeling, OK, this world is really opening up to me and it is so full of wonderful things. I guess that was really the moment when I discovered that I could really communicate to an audience something special through this wonderful music. I discovered that more in that recital than I had earlier just playing with an orchestra with a concerto — playing for 30 minutes or so. To be able to engage an audience through a whole recital was really overwhelming.

You are bringing a couple of those works back to your North American tour. What are you excited about when reuniting with them?

The piece that brings me most back to that period is the Haydn sonata, which I’m playing at the beginning of my recital. That was the first Viennese classical sonata I played, and it was a suggestion of my teacher. I really love that piece. It is so beautiful, and I haven’t played it since. When I started looking at it now, it was really like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years and years.

I just had this feeling, OK, this world is really opening up to me and it is so full of wonderful things.

You’ve done so much in your career with chamber music, as a recording artist, and with these wonderful multimedia projects. What did you expect when you stepped on that stage so long ago? Where did you expect to be at this point?

I really had no idea. I was not surrounded by professional musicians. I am from a house where my parents are music teachers, but they were never trying to be professional musicians. And I’m from a small community. I didn’t have any models around me. And then I found this wonderful teacher when I was 16. He had been a professional pianist, but he was no longer a professional pianist. I didn’t have people around me that I could look to and say, “OK, that’s how it is to be a soloist, or to be a musician full-time, and that’s how touring life may look.” I didn’t have any models, so I had to find my own path.

I was very frustrated that I had such a small repertoire. I felt like a very slow learner, and I really needed time for every big piece. I was anxious about that, and for the first five years I was very restrictive in how many concerts I took on, even if my name became well-known, at least in Norway. I was very careful. I wasn’t sure what this life would be like.

I also found it difficult in the beginning with traveling and being alone — not knowing languages, not knowing places, not knowing people. And that’s the wonderful thing when looking back now, is what a network of friends and acquaintances and wonderful places I’m coming back to: stages I know, pianos I know. I have a homely feeling in many places now, and that was quite tough in the beginning when everything was new.

With all of your travels, and all of the pieces you’ve performed, and all of the ensembles you’ve performed with and other great artists — if your last concert was tomorrow, what would you like it to be?

I think that I would want it to be somewhere intimate, not on a very grand scale. There are some halls [where] I’ve had really magical experiences, like Carnegie Hall. I know it’s typically the most famous concert hall in the world. In addition to that, it really had something very magical for me, something about the sound. Even if it’s such a large hall, you feel that you can really bring in an audience, even for a piano concert, because of the sound, because of the beauty of how it looks. But I think if it really was my last concert I would want to do that in a more homely environment, maybe in Norway for just 300 or 400 people.

I play in lots of large halls, but I often come back to wanting to play in smaller spaces because so much of the music was not written for very large spaces. There is something, really, that clicks when one plays in a small space. You can whisper and everyone can hear it. The contrast gets even greater in the pieces I’m playing. Especially if it was my last concert, I would want to share it with an intimate group of people and friends and family.

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