Piano Man

Can Leif Ove Andsnes be both a keyboard wizard and an average guy?

When the name David Helfgott comes up in the conversation, Leif Ove Andsnes pauses. Granted, hearing the pause isn't easy; the Norwegian piano virtuoso talks so softly that at times it sounds like he's left the room even when he's right there with you. But nonetheless, Helfgott's name makes an obvious impression, perhaps because Andsnes is tired of hearing it, and perhaps even more because when he does hear it, what, after all, can he say?

Helfgott, of course, is the hero/victim of the Oscar-winning film Shine, a movie that details his descent into, and rise from, semi-madness after being pushed into becoming a child star of the piano. The particular piece of music that marks both Helfgott's dream and the obsession that ends it is Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto -- a work now probably more widely known as the Shine concerto. The piece is today tightly wound with Helfgott's story, and when the real man on whom the movie was based came out of retirement recently to take a concert swing through America, Rachmaninoff's Third was the piece he played constantly.

Rachmaninoff's Third is also, as it happens, a piece with which Leif Ove Andsnes is identified (though what he'll be playing with the Houston Symphony is Brahms's First Piano Concerto). And he was playing it on tour at about the same time that Helfgott emerged back into the public eye. And Andsnes himself is youthful -- he just turned 27 -- though obviously a few years beyond the child prodigy stage. Nonetheless, the similarities inevitably led to comparisons, most of which, to put it kindly, didn't work in Helfgott's favor. More than one music critic sniffed that while Helfgott may have the moviegoing public eyeing him adoringly, Andsnes has something more important -- actual talent.

It's clear that Andsnes has no interest in being the bludgeon with which classical music writers beat back the hype surrounding Helfgott. It's also clear that he'd just as soon let the image of the mad musical genius disappear into wherever it is that stereotypes go to die. "It's hard," he admits. "There is this idea of the piano player as some sort of touched individual, and I can certainly understand that. But I don't think about it. I'm very down-to-earth; I don't like to think of myself as different from anyone else, as separate from the rest of the world. Maybe it's something about the generation of performers I'm part of, but we know that's no good. All that should be noticed about you is the music. Nothing else really matters."

Actually, as Andsnes tells it, his own life is a model of normality -- assuming, of course, that normal includes going off to conservatory in your mid-teens and becoming an internationally known pianist in your early twenties. Born in the small town of Karmoy, Norway, in 1970, Andsnes says that his childhood was the sort most people can identify with: He made friends, he played, he goofed off at school. Granted, he did have the advantage of parents who were both music teachers and both pianists who introduced him to their instrument at the tender age of five. But in the beginning he was hardly a prodigy, and definitely not the sort to sequester himself inside the house for hours at a time pounding on the keyboard. His mother and father could tell they had something unusual on their hands, but they didn't press the issue.

"I was never pushed into this by my parents. They never promoted me as a wonder boy, and for that I am very grateful," Andsnes has said, and he adds now that in high school he even played the euphonium in the band, "though I wasn't that great at it," he laughs. By the time he was 15, though, he'd realized that for him music was more than a game. He left home for the city of Bergen, where he put himself in the hands of Jiri Hlinka, a Czech who became his true musical mentor. It didn't take long for him to blossom. By age 20 he had made a critically acclaimed appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra, and by age 22 he had debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic. In between were guest roles at many of the major symphonies in Europe and American.

It didn't take long for Andsnes to develop a reputation as someone who played not simply with skill, but with the understanding of someone much older. Andsnes simply attributes that to hard work and concentration; he may have goofed off as a child, but once he settled into the piano as his life, he became as obsessive as any other virtuoso, practicing five to six hours a day and playing pieces endlessly until he had unlocked the secrets inside them. The Rachmaninoff Third, for one, is a work he performed only in his practice room for two years before taking it public. "You do not," he says simply, "want to go on-stage until you're sure about what you're going to do there."

Andsnes has now established himself as one of the leading lights of a group of younger musicians for whom image is little and music everything. When reminded that one critic dubbed him an "emerging titan of the international concert arena," he all but stumbles in replying that he pays little attention to such things. "I'm really not very conscious of that," he says. "All I'm aiming for is the ideal performance, playing something in such a way that you're hearing exactly what the composer intended, finding the truth of the music ..."

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