How a pianist salvaged his lost Carnegie Hall debut

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How a pianist salvaged his lost Carnegie Hall debut
The composer and pianist Timo Andres in New York, May 21, 2020. Once the coronavirus pandemic canceled concerts around the world, Andres decided to reconstruct his recital as a series of YouTube videos. Calla Kessler/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It’s a story that has become tragically common since the coronavirus pandemic brought live performances to a halt: Composer and pianist Timo Andres spent months preparing for his Carnegie Hall recital debut this spring. Then the concert was canceled.

He had planned for the program to be a preview of the album “I Still Play,” out now on the Nonesuch label, with its brief pieces accompanied by several longer ones, including the world premiere of Gabriella Smith’s restless and sparkling “Imaginary Pancake.”

Instead, he has been homebound in New York City. He hasn’t left a roughly 2-mile radius of his Brooklyn apartment since March, although he has still kept busy, teaching at the New School, composing and spending a lot of time on YouTube.

“I know,” Andres said in a recent interview. “It’s like, welcome to 2006.”

But these days he is also very much on YouTube. Bucking the trend in classical music of often low-quality livestreams, yet not wanting to lay low completely, Andres decided to salvage his Carnegie program by documenting it as a series of videos on the platform.

To pull off the project, Andres had to learn how to become a one-man filming operation, equipped with just a microphone, iPhone and editing software. The videos don’t quite achieve the refinement of a studio recording, but they come impressively close.

Not only homespun, they are also homey: Andres is dressed casually, against a backdrop of art that includes a drawing by Buckminster Fuller, and sitting at the Bösendorfer piano he inherited from his teacher Eleanor Hancock. In a video of Steve Reich’s “For Bob,” from the Nonesuch album, he echoes the composer’s signature look with a baseball cap on his head.

In a FaceTime call, Andres talked about how the videos came together, and where they might fit into a year when live performance seems increasingly unlikely to return. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What made you want to present your Carnegie program this way?

A: I had a sense of things moving online, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. Friends suggested, “You should do a livestream when the concert would have happened.” Mentally, I couldn’t bring myself to practice the program for another month just for a livestream. Even if it’s for more people online, it’s just not the same. And I don’t love listening to livestreams, to be honest.

This was a way to keep myself occupied, to make these videos more slowly and sequentially. And to kind of have a sense of closure for the months of practicing that I had put in. It feels good to have a record of it that I can point to. Maybe I didn’t have my Carnegie Hall debut or whatever, but I made this thing you can listen to for free at any time.

Q: With the “I Still Play” pieces, what’s the difference between playing them in the studio and on video?

A: I often find that recordings, in the attempt to emulate the concert experience as ideally as possible, sometimes lose something in the way of risk-taking. And it’s something that, especially as I start to record music that’s not just my own music, I’ve been thinking about a lot, how to capture the spirit of that moment.

Onstage, I perform a mental trick where I imagine myself in my living room at my own piano. That’s where I feel that I play the best, when I’m here on my own with nothing to lose. What’s interesting is that I couldn’t quite put myself in that mindset. Simply the fact that I was making a record of it made it difficult.

Q: How does that consideration change for a premiere made on video, like the Gabriella Smith?

A: Putting a piece out there for the first time, I need to make a good impression. But I know as a composer, one doesn’t necessarily envision every version of the interpretation as you’re writing. I need to learn how to interpret my own music when I play it.

I did run the final video by her before publishing. I was in fairly constant touch with her. In ideal circumstances I would be able to play it for her in person and go over all that stuff. This obviously wasn’t ideal, but she gave me a lot of leeway to interpret it.

Q: It’s one of the longer pieces on the program. How do those fit in?

A: What they have in common is, they have a bigger canvas for bigger landscapes. There’s a different emotional impact that you can get with a piece that’s the length of Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Or Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, which is a beautifully economical piece and a beautifully eloquent, and really tragic, statement in the end, going from that intense outburst in the middle of the third movement to the coda, where it is just receding and receding and receding in these sort of progressive elegies.

There’s something so deeply moving about that to me. It’s simultaneously anger and resignation, and of course a particular Americanness. And I do have this sense that we’re living through a weirdly slow-motion tragedy. Obviously worldwide, but in this country specifically because it’s a failure of leadership and a failure of empathy on the grandest scale imaginable. My piece “Old Ground” deals with another historical American tragedy, and then there’s the Rzewski. All this music is so topical. I certainly didn’t plan it that way, but when we’re thinking about people working in Amazon warehouses — that’s what it’s about.

Q: It doesn’t look like live performances will be returning for a while. Would you make more videos?

A: There is one thing I’m doing: an outdoor performance of Reich’s “Six Pianos” in Union Square Park. That’s still on in August, as far as we know. It seems like if anything should happen, it’s that.

But this model of presenting a recital program, I’m interested in it. I don’t know if it’s something I can make any money on, to put it bluntly. Maybe there are presenters who could take them on, and that could be a stopgap in the meantime. I’ve also heard presenters planning things like instead of one big recital, two or three one-hour programs with the audience spaced out, and three seatings like you would at a jazz club. It’s sad. I saw those photos from — where was it in Germany?

Q: Wiesbaden?

A: Yeah. I mean, it looks like some new music concerts I’ve been to in my life (laughs). But it’s definitely depressing. You get a certain energy from a good audience, and it will be hard to replace that.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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