by Elisabeth Lynne Bjork*
November 18, 2009, Raleigh, NC: We
have all tasted it: the newest addition to the menu at our favorite
it to be the latest breakthrough in the culinary world. Yet when we
try it, we wrinkle our nose and wonder what to think. It tastes different — but
is that good or bad? Is this a revolution in the food world or a failed
experiment? The trouble is, we don’t actually know what we are
eating: is that a mushroom or an onion?
I experienced this nose-wrinkling sensation in Memorial
UNC Chapel Hill. Pictures Reframed featured renowned Norwegian
pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and videos by
artist Robin Rhode.
program, presented as part of Carolina
ongoing season, had been advertised as a fresh perspective on Mussorsky’s Pictures
Exhibition and a unique intersection of descriptive art and music.
It was decidedly unique. But it left a strange taste: although the rhythmic collaboration
between Andsnes’ music and the films shown on the big screen was fascinating,
several of the films themselves did not evoke the same feelings emitted from
Perhaps the audience would have felt a better connection between the music and
the art if it actually knew what it was watching. But often we had to read the
program notes just to understand what our eyes were taking in, let alone how
it related to the music.
The music itself was inspiring and masterfully played. Andsnes commanded the
piano and seemed aptly suited to the program selections: in addition to the Pictures
at an Exhibition, Andsnes performed Mussorsky’s unfinished Memories
Childhood ("Nurse and I" and "First Punishment"); Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op.15; and What
becomes by Thomas Larcher (b.1963). Every
way to children..., either descriptive or reminiscent. Andsnes captured
innocent, curious, and wide-eyed honesty of children in every note. He projected a
lyrical, straightforward tone and was very involved in even the simplest
But he did not kid around in the fiery movements of any of the works.
His clear, focused tone and concentrated facial expression sent a compelling
the auditorium. When he played, we listened.
The only distraction from the music was Rhodes’ short film clips, "Kid
and "Spray Painting," situated between every piece except What
becomes and Pictures
at an Exhibition. These works did not evoke strong feeling; they were so
abstract that they did not make sense even after reading the program notes. I
every time a film ended and Andsnes walked back onto the stage.
But although I never grew to appreciate the modern artwork on the screen, I was
highly impressed with both the modern composer and the pianist
in the performance
of Larcher’s What becomes. Andsnes himself had debuted this piece
five days earlier. A criticism I often find with
modern pieces is that they lack structure, purpose, and real meaning. But What
drifted: it held
the audience’s attention through all six movements. In this piece, Andsnes was the
music. He embodied the spirit of piece perfectly in his body language and sincere
facial expressions, in his long legato lines and careful
of every note, in his wide range of touch, and in his technique on the piano
strings themselves; Larcher had created a masterpiece
that included plucking the strings inside the piano and forming glissandos on
clever placement of these special effects and Andsnes’ deliberate yet subdued
manner of playing them were the icing on a very tasty cake.
Pictures at an Exhibition, the last piece on the program, gave the same
feelings of admiration for Andsnes and his lovely, tasteful music, and confusion
disturbing pictures that flashed across the screen. Although some were fitting,
such as "Bydlo" ("Old Station") with its somber music and
European scenes, most
not make sense unless one had read the program notes or studied Rhode’s
work. But is an effective artist one who communicates directly with a viewer
or one who must write pages of program notes just to let the audience know what
he is trying to portray? Do we need the waiter to describe the chef’s inspiration
for creating a cuisine to enjoy his tasty food? Or do we need the background
information to convince us that the food is special when we really do not enjoy
Rhode evoked the greatest emotion of the audience,
however, in the last movement of the program, "The Great Gate of Kiev." In
his film, nearly-white water, previously encountered in another movement, progressed
into a rising flood. In
the center of the tide stood an erect grand piano, alone in the wilderness. As
Andsnes belted out gripping full major chords, the audience watched the flood
waters slowly inch up to the piano keys, and we saw the water slowly, painfully
cover the strings. The piano lid eventually collapsed, and the piece
ended with the piano resting tranquilly, lid up, beneath the flood. It nearly
made me cry. It was a bitter herb to swallow, especially for a pianist.
Although this movement tugged at my emotions and was a dramatic end, I still
did not know what to think. Overall the different films had been disturbing,
confusing, and distracting. I did not feel I wanted to experience — to
them again. Yet
Andsnes’ clear, convicting tone rang in my ears above the films.
If offered an opportunity to sample this menu again,
perhaps I will close my eyes, leave off the extra fixings, and enjoy the music à la
*The author is one of our 2009-10 Meredith