The work of Italian pianist and composer, who plays in Dubai this weekend, is characterised by emotion and intimacy
The widespread appeal of Ludovico Einaudi
There are not too many artists who can claim a celebrity fan base as eclectic as Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, punk-rocker Iggy Pop, rap diva Nicki Minaj and British comic Ricky Gervais.
Milanese pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi has achieved such widespread appeal because his work cannot be easily classified within classical music. His work exudes a mysterious alchemy that keeps it far removed from beige muzak to encompass something darker, haunting and deeply emotional.
If you are in the audience at Dubai Opera, where the 62-year-old plays on Thursday and Friday, don’t be surprised to hear quiet sniffles among the crowd when the lamenting notes of Le Onde are played.
The skeletal piano piece, which is the title track of his 1996 album, is so achingly beautiful that it has reportedly been played in hospital wards to soothe the nerves of patients.
One gets the sense that Einaudi would probably appreciate that more than being the most-streamed classical artist on Spotify – with nearly a million plays, he comfortably beats none other than Mozart – because his albums are often created as result of a deep meditative process. Take, for example, his latest work, 2015’s Elements – the 12-track cycle was recorded at his family retreat at the foot of the Alps in north-western Italian region Piedmont.
Inspired by his wild surroundings, he composed a series of shape-shifting tracks with undulating arpeggios, rich orchestral flourishes and a newfound pulsating percussion that explore various subjects such as the periodic table, geometry and the work of Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky.
Thankfully, you don’t have to understand all those references to appreciate the music. Elements has plenty of Einaudi’s trademark melodies, which are precise and stirring.
“I love to explore melody,” he said in an interview promoting the album. “A great melodic line is like a person’s soul, and coming up with an original melody, it can be like you are illustrating the soul.
“People look at you like you are a magician. You have conjured up something out of nowhere that no one has before. You are creating a route to the soul.”
Born into a family of esteemed lineage – his grandfather was former Italian president Luigi Einaudi, while his father, Calvino, was a successful publisher responsible for releasing works by famed Italian writers Italo Calvino and Primo Levi – Einaudi began playing the piano as a child under the instruction of his mother.
That sense of chafing manifested itself in his teenage years in the 1960s. Einaudi credits the inspiration offered by the music of the Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix and films by Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni in widening his perspective before the entering the Milan Conservatory.
With adventurous composer Luciano Berio as his teacher, Einaudi went on to make a name for himself for his inventive pieces that were equally at home in ballet productions and experimental dance theatre.
Noticing the expansiveness of his sound, Einaudi began working on soundtracks to a slew of Italian films in the 1980s, before landing international gigs including 2011’s French blockbuster The Intouchables and Leonardo Di Caprio-starrer J Edgar.
Perhaps as a reaction to the maximalist nature of film scores, Einaudi simultaneously worked on a solo career, with a series of albums characterised by both their intimacy and complex texture. Albums such 2009’s Nightbook and 2013’s In a Time Lapse are compelling blends of piano and electronica that Einaudi describes as akin to a painter mixing with colours.
Ironically, Einaudi also sees his modern approach as a practice that great composers – such as his online rival Mozart – used in their own work, which was to use the instruments available at the time.
“[Now] we live in highly advanced electronic times and the tools at our disposal should be utilised to improve music,” he said in a 2016 interview. “Sometimes you cannot produce a specific sound you want with say a guitar or piano and you simply need to use electronic elements.”
Then again, embracing new frontiers is something Einaudi takes literally. The UAE’s current weather will be a comparatively welcome relief considering he has previously performed on top of a floating platform in the Arctic Ocean in Norway. Recalling that 2016 benefit gig for environmental group Greenpeace – where he composed haunting Elegy for the Arctic – Einaudi admits that as well as a warning against the dangers of climate change, the experience was also in line with his penchant for intimacy in all his artistic pursuits.
“It was quite cold, around 0°C, so I had to stop every few minutes to warm my hands,” he told The New York Times. “I had different layers of technical clothing, some very thin, and on top of that I had more solid body covering and on top of that – my concert jacket. And they also gave me a life preserver. When I was performing, I was enjoying it very much, even if it was freezing and the conditions were not perfect, and the keys were very cold. But it was beautiful to be there alone on the platform, with the ice falling down.”
Ludovico Einaudi performs at Dubai Opera on Thursday and Friday. For more information and tickets, visit www.dubaiopera.com