Not yet 30, composer and pianist Timo Andres is both prodigiously talented and surprisingly non-neurotic.
Timo Andres is a fastidious generator of beauty. Most obviously it is musical beauty, as Andres, a composer and pianist who is not yet 30, is a prodigy who was improvising on songs at the age of 6, graduated from Juilliard and Yale, has a full plate of commissioned works, and has released two albums that have provoked comparisons to John Adams and Charles Ives.
His second record, last year’s “Home Stretch,” boldly fills in the absent left hand of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto and also offers up a 14-minute “Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno.”
It is a résumé that made Andres a logical choice to be part of Liquid Music, sponsored by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to expand the boundaries of classical music composition and performance. On Friday and Saturday nights, he will unveil his new “Work Songs” cycle, composed for a group of handpicked fellow singer-songwriters, in the Music Room at the SPCO Center.
Phone conversations with Andres’ collaborators reveal that his keen aesthetic sense extends beyond his music and is an integral part of his surroundings, his habits, his entire mien. Becca Stevens met Andres when they both participated in a project by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau at Carnegie Hall three years ago. She said his small Brooklyn apartment “is set up in such an inviting way that it would make you get up every morning and just want to write.”
Other friends rave about the care and ingenuity he invests in his cooking. Since he left Yale and realized “it was time to enter the adult world,” he has also become something of a fashion plate.
Above all, however, the people who will join Andres onstage in St. Paul marvel over his even-tempered self-assurance. “He is one of the least neurotic people I have ever encountered in the arts, so calming and reassuring to be around,” said Gabriel Kahane, a singer-songwriter who first collaborated with Andres on an Ives-related program at the 2011 Ecstatic Music Festival.
“Timo projects serenity in an incredible way,” agreed Ted Hearne, a longtime soulmate since their days together at Yale, who will become professor of composition at the University of Southern California later this year. “While everybody is getting outraged over someone at the Guardian trashing Ravel, or something, Timo understands it’s more important to eat good food, love each other, have hobbies. For composers, who can be really insecure, that’s so important.”
Not surprisingly, this outlook is readily apparent in the seamless grace and organization of Andres’ music, which can glide into gorgeous crescendos and blend tradition and unpredictable refinement in a manner that feels both alert and grounded.
For his Liquid Music show, the unflappable composer decided to challenge himself, using text and voices in his work more than ever before. He hatched the idea after reading a list of new year’s resolutions by Woody Guthrie for 1942 and being struck by the different things that “work” means for an artist.
He decided to explore the project via an open-ended commission he had received, recruiting four friends of slightly different musical backgrounds who live in and around Brooklyn: Stevens and Kahane on vocals and guitar, Hearne on vocals and keyboards, Nathan Koci on accordion, and himself on piano.
Last summer was spent finding the right texts. An important discovery was the poem “Art,” by Herman Melville, which talks of patiently wrestling with a mixture of audacity and reverence in order to create. “It was amazing to have him articulate the same things my colleagues and I talk about on a daily basis,” Andres said.
With music set to the Melville poem leading off, and a song connected to Guthrie’s resolutions closing, Andres set the middle three songs to more contemporary poems about the arduous nature of work. Last fall he met with each vocalist to discuss the song in which he or she would be featured. More recently, the quintet has rehearsed the entire program together, and will perform its world premiere at the 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival in New York two nights prior to the Liquid Music gigs.
At the concert, each of Andres’ collaborators will perform some of their work, rearranged for the quintet. But everyone in the group is most excited about the song cycle.
“One of the things I really respect about it is that Timo is challenging us as well as himself,” Hearne said. “He knows all of us vocally, and so he spends some of the time in our comfort zones and some of the time pushing our boundaries.”
Kahane brings it back to beauty. “Timo surrounds himself with beauty. He loves to make beautiful sounds and he believes in deeply expressing beautiful things.”
“I have always been a bit of an aesthete, always aware of my surroundings,” Andres said sheepishly. Then, in his self-assured, well-grounded way, he explained why. Unlike most prodigies, who are pushed and pressured, his parents and teachers were “willing accomplices” in allowing him to be “very self-directed.” For as long as he can remember, he has been “moved and attracted to beauty.” Yet, “whenever I wanted to intensify my engagement with something, it was my choice. So I never got disaffected.
“Believe me, I am well aware of how lucky I am.”
Britt Robson writes about music.