Some pianists go into crisis if they don't sound like they're from any place in particular. Tell Piotr Anderszewski that he makes music without the slightest regional accent and you'll never see him happier.
The pianist is making one of the more eagerly anticipated debuts of the Philadelphia Orchestra season tomorrow through Saturday at the Kimmel Center. But as a proud Pole with Hungarian genes and a primary residence in France, he defies allegiances to any pianist tradition. "It means that you're yourself," he said the other day. "To me, there is no other possibility."
Outside his midtown Manhattan hotel, the bustle of New York is like super-oxygenated air after visiting more homogenous parts of the country. "I like to see different people from myself, not only the color of the skin but different mentalities," he says. "Some places in America, there's a tremendous feeling of loneliness. I find myself out of context the further I go west. There's lots of beautiful rubato but where's the main tempo? What links all of this?"
With such thoughts dictating his comings and goings, you wonder how much the regimented classical-music industry can accommodate him. He may have a future in that Martha Argerich/Grigory Sokolov pantheon of pianists who command devoted audiences but give concert promoters high blood pressure.
No surprise that his main contact with Philadelphia has been the Curtis Institute pianist Yuja Wang, whom he met in Aspen, Colo., last summer and who also wonders how to function in a music industry where a symphony orchestra requests Tchaikovsky three years in advance and expects you to stick to that whether you're in the mood or not.
That's particularly so in America, where Anderszewski has been playing only since 2001. For all of his sleek, guy-about-town charisma, he's 38 - at the threshold of middle age, having been through enough career stages to have multiple residences (the latest in Lisbon) to show for it.
Initially, he attracted more attention by walking offstage in mid-performance at the 1990 Leeds Competition (he wasn't happy with what he was doing) than if he had soldiered on. But he created a sensation with his debut at London's Wigmore Hall, and by the mid-1990s took a legitimate shortcut to recognition, though only in Europe, accompanying violinist Victoria Mullova.
The Bruno Monsaingeon documentary film Piotr Anderszewski Plays the Diabelli Variations inaugurated a major contract with the Virgin label that now includes Beethoven, Bach and Chopin. Winning the 2002 Gilmore Artist Award designated him as an unusually interesting pianist (past winners are individualists such as Leif Ove Andsnes and Ralf Gothóni), and the cash prize allowed him to fund a solo recital of music by the little-known Karol Szymanowski when Virgin execs balked.
Though Anderszewski gives credible performances of music he's not fond of - the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 with Mullova is one example - he has mostly managed to avoid being a repertoire slave. That's remarkable when he enumerates what's in and out. Anything Russian, for example, is out. His relationship with Beethoven is increasingly conflicted. Chopin had a brief window of favor, long enough to make a recording with mazurkas played with little sense of their ethnic dance origins. Schumann is in in in, but only in recent weeks.
In fact, Anderszewski is so in love with Schumann's Humoreske that he asked his agent to add it to next season's programs (which include a Feb. 18, 2008, stop at the Perelman Theater, thanks to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society). He'll play Schumann's Piano Concerto for the first time this fall.
"It's important to find something personal in the music. It's not about being different but being yourself, and finding a composer with whom you can have complete identification," he says. "With Schumann [who went insane in his final years], that might be quite dangerous."
One permanent fixture is Szymanowski (1882-1937). Though it has been championed by conductor Simon Rattle in recent years, Anderszewski is bringing the Symphony No. 4 for piano and orchestra to many cities for the first time. It's a big-orchestra, Richard Strauss-ish piece that's not even a concerto. Anderszewski seems not to consider whether it's a good debut vehicle, or that audiences might be too busy parsing the piece to appreciate what he's doing with it. And there's a lot to parse.
"You look at yourself in the glass and suddenly you see your face deformed, and taking on some strange shapes," he says, describing how he views the music. "You have a nice, smiling pleasant-to-look-at face and distortion starts to happen. It's wonderful. . . . After working on the piece you suddenly see this line . . . that leads from the first [note] to the last. It's the greatest joy. Out of this dark corner, out of this mess, you've found your way out. A fantastic feeling."
From outward evidence, Anderszewski might seem to be unduly cerebral - not just the way he works, but thefact that he's lived in Paris for a decade and not even sampled its high-style opera scene. Yet he has other sides. Music is his life, but so is cooking. And when not practicing, music isn't part of his day at all. He laughs often, particularly when admitting that in the Monsaingeon film, that large, amiable dog he was walking on the beach not only wasn't his, it was rented.
One less-known fact is that he studied for two years in Los Angeles, which he found liberating after growing up under the historic weight of being Polish: "[In L.A.], it's all about you the individual, your freedom, your car. . . ."
For someone who exerts such control over some elements of his life, he longs for chaos in others. One eternal regret is never having experienced New York City in the grimy, freaky 1970s, when any given street scene might include a man roller-skating down Columbus Avenue in a full-length wedding dress. Anderszewski searches for echoes of that: "What I love about New York is . . . anything can happen any time. In Central Park you see such weirdos. . . ."