Update as of Thursday, November 19 at 5:00 p.m.: Unfortunately, Leif Ove Andsnes has fallen ill and will not be able perform at Hill Auditorium the evening of November 20th. Instead, the British pianist Paul Lewis will replace him, playing the final three sonatas of Beethoven. Lewis is seasoned performer of Beethoven’s sonatas and concerti alike, becoming the first pianist in the history of BBC Proms to play all five concerti in one season. He also won Gramophone magazine’s “Best Instrumental” and “Best Recording of the Year” awards in 2008 for his recording of the complete sonatas. This performance will be the UMS debut for the “unrivaled interpreter” (UMS).
You walk into one of the hallowed halls of high culture — the Lincoln Center, the Philharmonie, the Sydney Opera House. You’re ushered to your seat, lower yourself quietly and prepare to be transported. The lights dim, and everyone takes a sharp, quiet breath. The vacuum of space and time is where it all happens. Then — the first notes of the keyboard hit and then, then! … The muses go to work tickling your fancy.
Or, maybe not. The idea that audiences should go to cultural events — concerts, exhibitions, readings — to be passively enlightened, quiet and stationary, is an invention of the past 150 years. Compare the above scene to accounts of Franz Liszt’s recitals, a pianist who “revolutionized the art of performance … Everything we recognize about the modern piano recital – think Keith Jarrett, Glenn Gould, Tori Amos, or Elton John — Liszt did first. Even the name ‘recital’ was his invention.” This same article recounts some of the most striking visuals of the moment in class music history called “Lisztomania”:
“Liszt was tearing up the polite salons and concert halls of Europe with his virtuoso performances. Women would literally attack him: tear bits of his clothing, fight over broken piano strings and locks of his shoulder length hair,” the NPR staff said.
All this might seem just a fragment of a “simpler time.” It should be underlined, though, that the recital was caught up in the process of racial and class segregation that accompanied the emergence of our models of receiving and enjoying culture. In 19th century New York City, the movement to institute bastions of culture — museums, concert halls and the like — to exclude workers, black Americans and immigrants culminated into the Astor Place Riots of 1849, one of the most severe episodes of civil unrest in New York history. What is taken for granted today took decades of state repression to accomplish.
This history survives now in certain conventions and prohibitions, which concertgoers abide by: Don’t clap between movements! Don’t cough! An upcoming performance with Leif Ove Andsnes, Norwegian concert pianist and chamber musician, on Friday, Nov. 20 at Hill Auditorium, will be no exception. He is one of the powerhouses of contemporary classical music whose North American tour stands as his first major stint in solo performance after a multi-year-long project playing and recording all five piano concerti by Beethoven.
Yet, for a winner of “Best Recording of the Year” from BBC Music Magazine and the German Critics’ Award, what jumps out from Andsnes’s biography is his commitment to unpretentiousness in his performance career. In 2005, when the power went out at his recital in Rome, he offered to continue with the performance in the dark. “The hall declined the offer … citing safety concerns,” notes a biographical document about the pianist from his management.
“What I really dislike somehow is the feeling when you come into a concert hall and you have the kind of people who really know how it’s supposed to go, and they cough in between all the movements because then you are allowed to do that,” Andsnes said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
“If Beethoven, in his time, saw that people weren’t clapping after his first movement of a piano concerto, he would have thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Andsnes said. “He would have thought that no audience was there. I mean, they would always clap and they would clap, even, after a great cadenza.”
Andsnes remarked that he has “nothing against” people taking the break after the first movement of a piano concerto to clap. At the same time, he doesn’t want to take away from the beauty of the silence that reigns over concert halls “that is so rare in today’s society.”
Andsnes takes great joy as a performer in frustrating expectations about program selection as well. The program for his upcoming performance, jumping from short pieces by Sibelius to a piano sonata by Beethoven, forms creative connections between what some purists might deem an unlikely pairing.
“I’ve always loved making recital programs to combine music that people will think, ‘Ah, I know this, this is familiar territory,’ with music that is very unfamiliar and also see how one can affect the other one,” Andsnes said.
Andsnes has also served as co-director of the Risør Festival of Chamber music in Risør, Norway, a historic shipping and fishing town that attracts many tourists. Andsnes described how he has developed some of the most lasting musical relationships through these events over the past 20 or so years.
Holding this festival outside of the major metropolises of the world is yet another indication of Andsnes’s commitment to working within, but also sometimes against, conventions of classical music performance. A prohibition on clapping between movements is not equivalent to the violence that laid the basis for so many of our dominant cultural institutions. It exemplifies an awareness of history that is essential when we participate in this consumption and of how we think through the norms that define the experience of art. Andsnes is, besides his virtuosity, an exceptionally thoughtful performer who takes these questions seriously.