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Harvey Takes Unconventional Approach to Piano Artistry

Fast Track: Up and Comers in Arts and Entertainment. One in a series


The more one talks to Michael Kieran Harvey--the Australian co-winner of the controversy-riddled Ivo Pogorelich International Piano Competition in Pasadena in December--the more extraordinary he seems: He's a competition winner with big ideas and unusual concerns.

Here is a pianist who not only dared the outre modernisms of Berio, Messiaen, Carter, Berg and little-known Australian composer Carl Vine amid the ultra-conservative confines of a piano competition, but who now also makes the shocking confession that his interpretation of Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata in the finals--a deeply impressive one to critics--was "ironic."

"I was actually 'sending it up' as a piece of music, because I think it's the most stupid piece," he says.

Here is a competition winner who refuses to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto: "I don't feel very much affinity for it, to be I'm probably shooting myself in the foot here and wiping out a whole lot of possible engagements, but that doesn't really interest me. I don't think I could play it with any sense of conviction."

And here is a competition winner who reads , and not just comic books. He has just tackled the I Ching, one of the five classics of Confucianism.

Critics have commented on his "utter artistic conviction," his "formidable intellect." He's a composer as well; his recital at Ambassador Auditorium on Thursday will include his own "Toccata DNA."

Friendly and soft-spoken, father of one with one on the way (to be named Raphael, he says, beaming), Harvey is just in from New York where he was busy making connections and commissioning new works (he split $150,000 with Edith Chen as co-winner of the Pogorelich) from the likes of Milton Babbitt, Earle Brown, Mario Davidovsky and Steve Reich.

Strongly committed to presenting new music as an integral, rather than token, part of his programs, Harvey initially met with indifference from these composers.

"But when I started talking to them about my ideas, about performance mainly, how their music would be presented and then specifically what I would like (as a pianist)--then they started to get interested. I think composers need to have almost like a recipe for writing music. They need to have an idea which can come from the performer."

The 33-year-old Melburnian continually ponders his relationship with audiences, too.

He is "passionate about making the recital format relevant to the time we live in. . . . You can't ignore the tremendous influence technology has. You can't ignore the fact that a lot of young people these days are growing up with MTV and with the video image. You can't ignore that a lot of people see classical music as a class thing now and can't afford to go."

But he too often observes "a gulf of arrogance between the audience and the performer." Harvey has experimented using live video and projected photos in his recitals, and thematically incorporates the new music he plays with older music the audience can get a handle on.

The period since his Pogorelich victory has been difficult.

"I really do feel like I've started to self-destruct this year. . . . You're not really told how to live as an artist, and you're certainly not given the tools for dealing with successful situations--at least, I wasn't." In addition to "Overcoming the Fear of Success" (another book read recently by Harvey), he has had to deal with widespread indifference, even hostility, in Australia to his victory.

"There's (what we call) the 'tall poppy' syndrome, which is that anyone who is extremely successful in Australia sort of gets cut down to size pretty quickly. . . . I'm the first Australian who has actually done this well in an international competition in history. I leapfrogged over a number of other musicians who are very high profile in Australia, and I guess that's threatening--I don't know."

Harvey also has a problem with nerves, describing his preconcert condition as "paralytic," but he has come to respect the "heightened consciousness" it gives him. He knows he needs it for the repertory he plays.

"For me, I lost my virginity with 20th-Century music. It's not enough to simply play music that I understand, anymore. I also have to be playing music that I don't understand. I don't pretend to understand Milton Babbitt. I don't pretend to understand people such as Elliott Carter. But their music speaks to me in a way that is sometimes really scary, but it's also thrilling for me to try and understand it."

* Harvey performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena, (800) 266-2378. $18-$21.

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