CHAPEL HILL — At first glance, two concerts this week at UNC-Chapel Hill look like divergent offerings. One is a solo piano recital, the other features six musicians and three vocalists performing a brand-new American work.
But look closer at who's playing, and you'll see that Chapel Hill is bracing for a Scandinavian chamber music invasion.
There are no banners, as there were in June to welcome Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, but there's no shortage of cachet. On Tuesday, the New York collective Bang on a Can All-Stars appears with the Norwegian/Swedish vocal group Trio Mediaeval. Wednesday night, six-time Grammy-nominated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes will perform Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."
Both tours will make just four other North American stops. Why Chapel Hill? These performances are two more coups for Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts. Presenting these concerts on back-to-back nights was "less than desirable," Kang said, but that's how the scheduling cards fell, and he decided to play both aces.
"There are a lot of factors at play in both cases, luck being a big part of it," Kang said. "We feel like these two programs exemplify our artistic mission: not only the presentation of new work, but presentation of work in innovative ways."
Last season, the Bang on a Can All-Stars came to town to perform music by members of the rock bands Wilco and Sonic Youth. This fall, the group is touring with a 75-minute new work by Julia Wolfe, one of three composers who founded Bang on a Can in 1987.
"Steel Hammer" is a sonic recasting of the John Henry legend. Designer Jim Findlay has created lighting and effects that transform the stage into a postmodern pioneer campground, and the musicians will add dulcimer, banjo and other Appalachian instruments to their usual rotation. Singing the libretto will be Trio Mediaeval, an ensemble that specializes in ancient music and folk songs from Scandinavia.
"I wondered a bit why they wanted to use our voices for this," singer Linn Andrea Fuglseth said, "but this project is so interesting for us." She spoke last week while on-the-go in Oslo, taking her daughter to a choir rehearsal. As singers who have dedicated so much time to exploring Nordic mythology and music, the women are fascinated by this American tall tale. As a bonus, this tour gives Fuglseth a chance to sing in the style of an American performer she has long admired: the bluegrass siren Alison Krauss. "I just think she's absolutely amazing," Fuglseth said.
Bang on a Can has long been obliterating musical boundaries, but Andsnes, (pronounced ONDS-ness), is respected more for his introspective interpretations of new and traditional classical music.
"Pictures Reframed," the global tour that opened Friday at New York's Lincoln Center, is a groundbreaking collaboration between Andsnes and South African artist Robin Rhode. The pair met at a German exhibition two years ago. Andsnes describes himself as an occasional gallery-goer, and Rhode says he's a "hip-hop head." Together, they've transformed an iconic piece of classical music into a concert that's getting buzz around the world.
The original story of "Pictures" is well-known in classical circles. After the death of his artist-friend Vicktor Hartmann in 1873, Mussorgsky composed a 15-movement piano cycle inspired by Hartmann's artwork. Ravel later rearranged the piece, resulting in the oft-performed orchestral version. Andsnes describes "Pictures" as an open work, one that was better suited to visual interpretation than say, a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven sonata.
"It's this kind of piece that seems to have always been in evolution," Andsnes said, speaking by phone from Rome. "I thought it therefore would survive a combination with video, because you need something very strong if you have this huge video screen behind the piano, in order to not be totally overwhelmed by the visual elements."
Rhode filmed 15 mini-movies that are tenuously connected to Hartmann's artwork. For example, the drawing that inspired Mussorgsky's "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" was of a dancing egg with legs. Rhode's video features the arm of his son tracing arcs on paper with a protractor. Speed the video up, and it appears the hand is painting like a Spirograph while Andsnes' hands scamper across the keys.
As Andsnes plays, the films will be projected above him, while five other suspended screens reflect abstract lighting designs. If that sounds distracting, Andsnes is sympathetic. But he urges listeners to give his experimental concert a try.
"I will be the first to acknowledge that it can be challenging to both listen and look so attentively at the same time," he said. "I love this music. I love doing it without any help from the visual arts, but this is as much an experiment, and an attempt to do something new, and to see if these two art forms can mean something together. ... We'll see if we can achieve that."