A cherished pianist tells Christopher Morley of his love for Birmingham after 25 years of success.
One of Birmingham’s favourite visiting pianists is the Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, who built a strong relationship with the CBSO in the early 1990s and has maintained links with the city ever since.
This year, still only 41, Leif Ove celebrates 25 years as an international pianist, and a Europe-wide tour commemorating that landmark includes in its programme the self-same Haydn C minor Sonata that figured in his official debut in Oslo when he was all of 16 years of age.
“It was the first classical sonata I studied with my teacher, so I’m happy to be coming back to it,” he explains.
This celebratory tour takes in Schloss Elmau in Germany, Brussels, Oslo, Paris, London, Florence, Genoa and Berlin. Birmingham comes exactly halfway through, and, significantly, I like to think, is the earliest venue out of all these at which he performed.
I had interviewed this pleasant, charming unassuming young pianist over an early supper at the Hyatt Hotel during his rehearsals with the CBSO and Simon Rattle for a concert at Symphony Hall on May 14 1994.
Leif Ove Andsnes’ response as I reminisce over this is charming:
“Thanks. I cannot remember the meal, but I can remember that it was a nice meeting with you. I don`t remember so much specifically about that first appearance with the CBSO, but I remember very well the happy feeling of working with a great orchestra and in a wonderful new hall many times in the next seasons. The CBSO was one of the orchestras I played most with in the 90s, and it always felt like an event to go on to that stage.”
What are his memories of subsequent appearances in Birmingham?
“In addition to that, I remember distinctly recordings and concert periods together with Sir Simon Rattle -- Brahms 1, and Szymanowski Sinfonia Concertante, recording with Paavo Järvi-- Britten and Shostakovich, and concerts with Paavo Berglund, a conductor I played a lot with and who recently sadly passed away.
“I remember also having played chamber music with the musicians of the orchestra in their Centre Stage series at the CBSO Centre, and the way in which they were very involved in the music-making and in the development of the orchestra.
“Birmingham was, and still is, a happening place for music, and I have also the greatest respect for the orchestra’s last chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, and the present one, Andris Nelsons, both of whom I admire and have been very happy to work with. A few years ago I brought the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra to Birmingham, where we played in the newly-renovated Town Hall. I remember thinking how jealous the musical life of London would have to be, having two such wonderful halls in Birmingham!”
Leif Ove Andsnes’ activities are an exciting blend of the established - he is currently embarking on a tremendous Beethoven project, encompassing concerto performances, recitals and recordings -- and new repertoire, as well as performing in chamber music ensembles and directing concerto performances from the piano. He tells me how these various facets complement each other.
“At the moment I’m not playing so much chamber music, but chamber music has always been very important for me since I studied at the Bergen Music Conservatory.
“I haven`t played all that much contemporary music, but the things I have chosen to do, I have tried to champion and done it with the same seriousness as with Mozart or Chopin. That is the only way we can give contemporary music a chance.
“Leading chamber orchestras from the keyboard has been another thing which I have felt shaped me as a musician, and it feels so right to do Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in that way. But I have no ambition to be up there conducting Bruckner symphonies.”
Leif Ove Andsnes has paid fulsome tribute to pianists from the past who have influenced him, but how about his contemporaries?
“This is difficult to answer in fact, because I rarely have a chance to go to piano performances, as I play 70-100 concerts myself each year,” he ponders. I remember being very touched by a recital with Arcadi Volodos a few years ago. And Marc Andrè Hamelin has given some unbelievable performances that I have heard, like one of Charles Ives ‘Concord’ Sonata, which was truly astonishing. Of course there are also recordings, but I tend to listen more to pianists from the past, like Lipatti, Michelangeli and Rachmaninov.”
Our conclusion is more domestic, as I congratulate Leif Ove on having recently become a father, and ask him how much time is he able to spend with his family within his busy professional life?
“Thanks! I’ve reduced a little the amount of concerts a year, and I don`t take on quite as much repertory per season as I used to. This was a necessary change when getting a family, and means that I actually get some weeks now and then at home when I get to mostly concentrate on being a dad!
“It’s very rewarding, and I am in a very good place in my life right now, getting to see my daughter growing, living in a quite remote but lovely town - Bergen - and having the possibilities to tour the world and make music. It sometimes feels like a schizophrenic existence, but I get to use different sides of myself,and that is great.”
* Leif Ove Andsnes plays Haydn, Bartok, Debussy and Chopin at Symphony Hall on Wednesday March 28 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.