Thursday, April 7, 2011

A bit of fantasia

I saw the best pianist in the world Tuesday night.

Well, maybe not THE best, but one of the premier performing pianists in the world beat the shit out of some under-qualified grand at the local concert hall and did it unlike anyone I have or will ever see.

Concert pianists may be less popular than Arcade Fire, but they are better at making music. (Not necessarily making music up.) Play the following video, if you would:

This is a great pianist playing a great piece greatly. You don't need to watch (he looks like a dead person anyway), but listen for the intricacies and the emotions.

That's where it starts: emotion. That's why we invented music. We needed to get some emotions out so we started yelling, then we started making our yells sound good, chanting, making songs, and developing the invention that was music.

Emotion is why we seek out music. It fulfills the need for emotion in a very enjoyable way. It's why emo and metal and reggae are popular niche genres. And why my mom thinks all rappers are angry. Anyone talking that fast and loud must be mad at someone.

Anyway, music isn't only heard, it's also seen. Not literally, mind you, but you never listen to music without seeing things. Whether you're walking to class and a song comes on that perfectly aids your strut and puts all those mindless drones walking to class around you in their place, or it's a music video that gives the song a more concrete context, music and images were meant to accompany each other. That's why movies have songs and songs have videos.

As I sat in the second row of the Foellinger Concert Hall, all I saw was a piano. A grand, a big grand, but an old one that didn't have the sleek sports car look to it that you would expect for a piano player as prestigious as Mr. Andsnes. Mr. who? Oh, Leif Ove Andsnes is the name of the guy I saw. Anyway, this piano was respectable but certainly no sports car. It was pretty much all that was in front of me. A boring display, provided I couldn't see his hands.

When Mr. Andsnes came out, he looked for a second like the crowd made him nervous, then he remembered that he was about to wow the shit out of them, and his face turned to a look of disappointment, because he knew this place should be packed. Because he remembered how damn good he was.

He sat down at the bench, greeting the piano, took a breath and a moment, placed his hands on the keys, ready to begin. No, he wasn't ready. Not ready enough. He took them back down and took a couple more moments and thought whatever a pianist of his stature thinks before attacking. (That, or he couldn't remember how his piece started.) Then he begins.

Whoa. He makes the piano bend to his every whim, not only controlling what notes resound, but for how long, at what volume, and maybe this was just me, but carrying whichever message he so desired.

He started with some Beethoven. Let me take a second here. Beethoven is the fucking man. There's bad weed, there's good weed, and there's whatever KiD CuDi smokes (Maui Wowie is it?) that gets you high and shows you the secrets to life. Beethoven will get you high and show you the secrets to life. All of this according to my brother, because, uh, I don't listen to classical music (yet!).

Anyway, as he was playing this, I couldn't see his fingers, which I wanted to. After amusing myself by admiring his intense facial expressions, I did what Walt Disney has programmed me to do. I Fantasia'd. I closed my eyes, imagining the notes as events, lines, shapes, whatever. They sprung around, not necessarily to life, but nonetheless in a lively manner. This worked great for Beethoven. On his second piece, some Brahms ballades, I Fantasia'd too hard and began to dream a bit. I woke up as the piece was ending, but in my defense, I had been up for 14 hours on six hours sleep. Actually when I write that out it doesn't look that unreasonable. Damn. Anyway, at intermission I slugged a Coke and headed to the front row at a different position where I could see his hands.

He played some modern piece. Modern, uh, "classical" music? Sucks. It's awful and sounds like fleem-floom-fleh. Literally sing that aloud and you will hear what it sounds like. But, Andsnes poured everything he had into making those fleems and flehs into emotional expressions, and by golly he pulled it off. It's a stressful listen, one where you really hope the next note is a logical good-sounding transition from the last, most always to no avail. But I guess that's the point. My favorite moment of the concert occurred during this song.

He hits a chord with his hands, yanks them back to his sides, clenches his right hand into a fist (presumably his left as well) and lurches his upper torso forward and shoots the piano a look, as if he just found a piece of paper in the guts of the piano that reads "it's not actually your baby." (No, not a relieved look, he wanted the kid in this case.) Then, after a pause measured in heartbeats, he resumes playing.

The final piece, again Beethoven, was the most technically impressive of the four. His fingers went apeshit. It was awesome. The show wasn't over however, we did the whole "he's leaving, keep clapping, he's back, keep clapping, he's leaving, keep clapping, he's back, keep clapping, he's sitting down, shut up he's playing" thing and he played a modest encore, then we did the aforementioned clap routine again and he came out for a second encore and played us something to go home on. It is my mission (still in progress) to find out what the second one was. I don't know. Also there's no YouTube video because apparently that shit ain't allowed so I can't ask someone.

Anyway, I was amazed. He played the crap out of the piano. And, Hopefully you've been listening to Mr. Rubinstein. He's pretty damn good. Still not sold on the "classical music evokes emotion" thing yet? Good. Rubinstein's a chode. He's good, but he's got nothing on my boy Leif Ove Andsnes. Proof? Of course. Enjoy.

He, and his orchestra, play this song better. Way better (in God's opinion) than Mr. Rubinstein. Piano performance goes beyond hitting notes (what I thought it was in like third grade) and into unchartable realms of emotional expression. Andsnes speaks better through ivory keys than he does through his English, as he is from Norway (REPPIN'!).

After this concert, my roommate invited me to Piano Man, which has been brought up in this blog before. I decided that after seeing the best pianist I would ever see in my life, it wasn't in my best interests to watch some drunk guy hammer out approximated Lady Gaga while I frantically downed Long Island Iced Teas to catch up to my friends' lack of sobriety.

I've never appreciated classical music as much as I should, I mean, my mom took me to the symphony when I was like seven. I was so borrrrred. Only when they played, like, In the Hall of the Mountain King, could I get into it. But now I've grown up, and with half my family being classical musician fans (and the other half being stupid) (just kidding, guys) I can really appreciate why NPR plays that stuff to death. Its emotional ups and downs mirror the plight of life itself. Whoa.

--Eliot Sill


  1. Are you sure Peder didn't write this post?


  2. While I definitely don't miss the emotion in these great performances, classical music has always given me more of a sense of dialogue and storytelling. Perhaps is was the context that I was first exposed to completely instrumental music (old cartoons), but I always seem to be following some vague and abstract story in my head when I listen to this kind of stuff.
    Also, you know you are a total musical-badass when you need an entire orchestra as your back up band.

  3. Yeah, cartoons really set the scene for a lot of my imagery as well. I'd be listening and tell myself "okay now picture a cat." and that cat would do all kinds of crazy stuff. Thank you Tom and Jerry.


  4. Wait so if I'm a good enough musician, can I force you to watch a porn in your head?

  5. I played dat piece yo (the Grieg)

    and rubinstein was the man like 50 years ago he can't help being 127 years old cut him some slack broski

  6. Your brother's right. Beethoven is the fucking man. Not only did he break like every single rule that existed in classical music but he also wrote some of his best music when he was pretty much completely deaf and half of his piano strings were broken. Not like noticed of course.

  7. Maybe it would be packed if Eliots invited friends.