July 26th, 2009 by Anna
When I sat down in the lobby of Los Angeles’ Peninsula Hotel to do this interview with Anna von Urbans – the chicest classical pianist I know – she had just returned from Italy. Her skin was tan and her glow was highlighted by a summery white dress that undoubtedly came from the newest Milan collection.
“Oh yes”, she mused. “The time before my vacation was hectic. Three concerts, three pianists, three different programs in barely a week time span. Stress. But don’t get me wrong! Nothing makes me happier than being on a tour or on a stage. I never stop practicing and I have a need to work constantly. This is my passion, my joy.”
Without this obvious dedication driven by the love of her craft, I suggested, performing music would border on impossible.
“But I also like to relax”, she continued. “Listen to music. Read a book. Take in the sun. And nothing beats Capri. You forget work exists.”
And there is no doubt that Anna managed to forget about work at least a bit. When asked about her upcoming performances, Anna insisted on talking about her love for…shoes.
“I’ve decided to wear Louboutin for all of my performances. I’m collecting suitable colors now. Nothing puts you in the high spirit of magic quicker than a 5 inch heel and bold red sole.”
I wouldn’t have known. But I believed her.
It’s not hard to imagine how Anna wins audiences and captures the attention of her collaborators. Her soft beauty, sensual grace and intensely penetrating gaze are irresistible. And yet she doesn’t want it all for herself. She loves to share her stage.
“I haven’t seen you in a solo performance in quite some time. Do you ever think about getting back to playing alone?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.
“Yes, I think about it all the time. Sometimes, when I listen to a good… a very good, solo piano performance, I feel an overwhelming sense of envy – to have total control over every single note, every expression, every sound. It’s a tremendous responsibility for a musician, but also a very satisfying fix. So, I go to the piano and start practicing Chopin’s Sonata or Bach’s Partita. But soon, the solitude sets in, and I miss hearing other voices, other sounds, other musicians. One piano, four walls, and my own thoughts, are just no longer enough for me.”
Since 2001 Anna has been dedicated exclusively to the piano duo repertoire. Beginning with the conventional stable of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, she later began to experiment with more adventurous material, plunging into a contemporary program.
Her original collaboration began with Los Angeles based, St. Petersburg born and educated pianist, Maria Demina. They explored the uncharted territory of the piano duo together as a team. But with their love for the form acknowledged and their success secured, both decided to deepen their knowledge and experiment with other musicians. Anna took her efforts to the Americas and Europe, playing with many extraordinary pianists.
“Was this a problem for you two? The original team ruptured in order to conquer as individuals?” I asked suspiciously.
“No, not at all. We encouraged and supported each other throughout. I couldn’t have done it without Maria. After all these years she is still the person I love to play with the most, and we sit at opposite keyboards or side by side quite regularly.”
“See, piano duo is a conspiratorial art”, Anna continued. “From the Latin word ‘conspirare’ – literally to breathe together – comes the most accurate description of the process. Two pianos must blend rhythmically, sonically and conceptually. And that’s very challenging. But the moment you achieve it, the “sounding like one” starts to become predictably boring.”
“Above all else,” Anna explains. “What makes a good two pianos piece, as well as two pianos performance, is the dialogue. Talking about the same subject matter, but using two different voices. And that’s tricky – to learn to play together and then to dance around each other instead of blending into sameness.”
To avoid that sameness and to step outside the barriers, Anna created AVU (Artists – Vision – Universe) Foundation. The goal of the Foundation is to create a bridge between the old and the new; between the classical and the contemporary; between various platforms of art. The idea came from combining two pianos with other instruments (some built for a given performance) and voices; video installation; film; architecture; choreography and visual arts.
The logistics of arranging and coordinating these wildly divergent artistic media present a fantastic challenge. However, the underlying motivation is simple: to expand the repertoire heard in concert halls and inspire music that has no labels and no barriers. The AVU Foundation seeks to create a dynamic musical vehicle that communicates to a wide array of audiences in innovative ways, connecting classical traditions with original expressions.
“I’m working on a new program now with artists from the US, Austria, Germany and Italy. It’s quite chaotic at the moment, but I’m looking forward to the final product of this unified journey, hopefully by the end of 2010. See, for me it is the only way to learn – to be confronted with the new, to take risks. And in life if you don’t take risks you have nothing. I don’t have many concerns regarding the restrictions of the classical music world, because I’ve never subscribed to it. The literature for two pianos is rich, but also very limited. There is only so much out there. For a long time now, I wanted to experiment further in creating new material. And what better way to do it than working directly on a composition with a composer? Musicians are simply interpreters. We can never be as good as the music we play. But it all starts with the composition. Without the composition, we interpreters are meaningless.”
Meanwhile, there are more immediate plans. On September 13th, Anna is performing with Maria at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). During the “Sundays live” series, broadcast live on the radio KCSN 88.5FM, they are going to play music for the Mendelssohn anniversary year, including the composer’s own 4-hand arrangement of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The program will also feature Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” arranged for two pianos.
“This piece [West Side Story] has been quite a dare for us.” Anna explains. “We got our hands on it over 2 years ago and we started to work on it immediately. But various life events, including a hand injury, prevented us from performing it until June of this year. We finally played it during a private benefit concert. The audience loved it. I suppose, the execration is broken,” she laughed. But I remained curious.
Undoubtedly, I will be attending this concert, full of interesting textural contrasts – between elegant classical stylings of Mendelssohn, to the sudden outbreak of an entertainingly cutting-edge jazzy number of Bernstein. An evening full of magic, 5 inch heels and bold red soles!
“And then?” I asked, referring to Anna’s musical whereabouts.
“Then…if all goes well, back to my lovely Italy.”
by P. Ortigara
for MUSICAL STYLE