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Aimard's expert curiosity

The great French pianist never likes to repeat himself, whether at the keyboard or as head of a festival -- like this year's Ojai.

June 03, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Paris — PIERRE-LAURENT Aimard's stylish study on the second floor of his tastefully appointed apartment in the 17th arrondissement reveals a tidy, if inquiring, mind. CDs, scores and books are well organized, as much as an eclectic collection including Boulez and Pygmy music can be. African instruments are artfully displayed. But the shelves were constructed to lean at vertiginous angles. If this were a film set, I'd imagine that Bunuel, Godard and Michael Haneke all had a hand in it.

The gleaming black grand piano, though, is the straightforward centerpiece. Perhaps France's finest pianist in a generation or two (or ever) and its most enterprising by a long shot, Aimard must practice somewhere when he is not on the road, as he often is. This week brings Aimard to Southern California, where he will serve as music director of the Ojai Music Festival.

Such tidiness, and especially the compartmentalization, are inevitably superficial. The French have always been very good at keeping up appearances. But you don't have to dig deep to discover a maze. A mild-mannered, seemingly easygoing man, with a shy, slightly worried smile, Aimard also has a devilish, subversive side. He is an exact pianist, and he describes his thought processes with a straightforward Cartesian logic. But the connections are never quite what you might imagine. Four years ago, for instance, he put together a dazzling CD, "African Rhythms," in which he alternates the music of Aka Pygmies, American Minimalist Steve Reich and Hungarian avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti.

On this lovely spring afternoon, Aimard pads around his designer pad, unshaven and slightly disheveled in jeans and slippers, sniffling from a cold. He's just back from tour and just about to leave town again. His wife and daughter, both pianists as well, leave as I arrive. Aimard doesn't express himself nearly as well in English as in French, but he gets by. He makes expert espressos for us, sits down and tries to explain how it is that one pianist can do so many things.

"When you meet an audience, you have a feeling that you open some doors," he says, trying to find words for his impossibly wide repertory, which is grounded in the new but pretty much encompasses the history of the piano. "Of course, I like risk. And I have curiosity."

To put those words in perspective, it is worth importing a paragraph from Aimard's official biography for this year's Ojai festival:

"During the 2006-07 season, he curates a 'Perspective' series at Carnegie Hall in New York, a 'carte blanche' at the Konzerthaus Vienna and is pianist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic. He commences a song recital series at the Palais Garnier, Opera de Paris, and maintains a regular presence also at the Philharmonie Cologne, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and South Bank Centre, London. He was artist-in-residence at the Salle de Concerts Grande-Duchesse Josephine-Charlotte, Luxembourg, in 2005-06, its opening season, and this season he begins a three-year term as artistic partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra." Keep in mind that in all of these endeavors, Aimard says he "finds it uninteresting to repeat a program." So he rarely does.

And of course, there is Ojai, where he will play solo and ensemble works by Stravinsky, Schumann, Bach, Ives (the monumental "Concord" Sonata) and Elliott Carter and concertos by Mozart, Ligeti and Ravel. He will conduct Carter's "Dialogues." He will premiere "Sonata per Sei," which is a new version of a concerto Peter Eotvos recently wrote for him. At Aimard's invitation, the Hungarian composer will also conduct the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Saturday night in his chamber piece "Chinese Opera" and a chamber orchestra version of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde."

About all that is missing are those Aka Pygmies.

The various series Aimard curates, it probably goes without saying, have different themes. In Luxembourg, the focus was on education. "I wanted to create a lot of possibilities for piano students and young audiences," he says. "We did a show for audiences aged 3 to 5." He also commissioned a solo piano piece by British composer George Benjamin for child pianists and made its performances by five of the kids the center of one of his recitals there.

"I like very much the image for each nation that you can get involved with an audience and have a sense of adventure," he continues. "Sometimes I might involve the same kinds of events in different places, but always in such different ways that there is never really much overlap. Audiences are different. Institutions are different. And my history with each place is different as well."

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