Music review

Review: 'Pictures Reframed,' Rhode's images and Andsnes's performances of music

Coming on strong: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes's playing was overly strident.
Coming on strong: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes's playing was overly strident. (Felix Broede/emi Classics)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

On Friday night, the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the visual artist Robin Rhode brought to Washington a project that in the mainstream classical music world passes for a cutting-edge experiment, but in the contemporary art world would appear a tame video project. "Pictures Reframed," a dialogue between Rhode's images and Andsnes's performances of music by Mussorgsky, Schumann and the Austrian pianist-composer Thomas Larcher, is a welcome attempt to tinker with the conventional concert format, presenting a nearly seamless hour and a half of unbroken music and image.

But on Friday it remained only an attempt. Whether because of the reduction in concept necessitated by limited space at the Terrace Theater (where only one projection screen was used, compared with six in New York, where the project was launched earlier this month), the unfamiliarity of the format, the uncertainty of Rhode's videos about whether they wanted to be conceptual art or cartoon-like stories, or Andsnes's startlingly percussive, bang-y playing, the dialogue didn't quite work.

The format placed a burden on Andsnes: He played an introduction (two of Mussorgsky's "Memories of Childhood") and three big pieces (Schumann's "Kinderszenen," Larcher's "What Becomes" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition") with very little interlude. At least, it sounded like a burden. Perhaps because childhood was a theme of the evening, the pianist played from the outset with a forcefulness that at times evoked a kid hitting the keys. In the Schumann, this sounded uncharacteristically earthbound.

Larcher's piece was an inventive exploration of the not-too-prepared piano. Actually preparing a piano, by placing various objects under and through its strings, was not possible due to the lack of intermission, so Andsnes simply laid a couple of objects on the strings, creating flattened, muted or twangy sounds that the composer probed, first gingerly, but building up to a wild and fast scherzo.

Rhode's videos were also warming up from stasis to full activity. A single static image of leaf- or stalactite-like green triangles accompanied the Schumann, but some episodes of the Larcher were paired with videos, and each of Mussorgsky's "Pictures" got a video of its own, offering a distinctive but sometimes dubious interpretive twist.

The "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks," appropriately antic, became a sequence of arcs inscribed by a child's drafting compass; but "Two Polish Jews" was accompanied by a montage of banking logos (matching the questionable taste of the composer's concept). "The Hut on Fowl's Legs," the Baba Yaga episode, got video of a running chicken. The final "Great Gate of Kiev" showed the piano being submerged under a torrent of water.

Meanwhile, Andsnes pounded at the piano with a stridency not previously heard in his playing, as if determined to force his meaning on the audience. This was perhaps necessary, since the videos gave no indication of which composer or vignette was being played, and it was too dark to read the program. If the point is to enhance the concert format, it might help to provide a few signposts for the audience; otherwise the evening becomes one more pop quiz, testing how well the audience has studied the program beforehand, and presenting merely sequences of meaningless images to those new to the music.

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