We have all tasted it: the newest addition to the menu at our favorite restaurant. The menu promises 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 Hall at UNC Chapel Hill. Pictures Reframed featured renowned Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and videos by popular Johannesburg-born artist Robin Rhode. The program, presented as part of Carolina Performing Arts‘ ongoing season, had been advertised as a fresh perspective on Mussorsky’s Pictures at an 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 the piano.

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 of Childhood (“Nurse and I” and “First Punishment”); Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op.15; and What becomes by Thomas Larcher (b.1963). Every piece was related in some way to children…, either descriptive or reminiscent. Andsnes captured the 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 moments.

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 feeling throughout the auditorium. When he played, we listened.

The only distraction from the music was Rhodes’ short film clips, “Kid Candle” 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 felt relieved 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 just five days earlier. A criticism I often find with modern pieces is that they lack structure, purpose, and real meaning. But What becomes never 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 planning 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 them. Larcher’s 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 for the disturbing pictures that flashed across the screen. Although some were fitting, such as “Bydlo” (“Old Station”) with its somber music and European scenes, most did 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 the taste?

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 taste 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 carte.

*The author is one of our 2009-10 Meredith College interns.