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Brain Waves 

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
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When Marino Formenti gave his first piano recital at LACMA’s Bing Theater last April, there were something like 50 people scattered through the 600-seat hall -- the usual turnout, in other words, for a new-music program at the Museum. Two weeks ago, for the first of Formenti‘s three concerts this year, the hall was nearly full. Before the third concert, LACMA’s music director, Dorrance Stalvey, blinked unbelieving at the half-dozen remaining empty seats and congratulated the audience for its good taste and for the power of word of mouth. Congratulations are due Stalvey himself as well; he had picked up on Formenti when he was here with the “Resistance Fluctuations” concerts in 1998. (I must have heard him then, too, but you‘d never know from my review.) In yet another shrewd concert-management capture, Formenti returns next season (October 2) to terrorize an Eclectic Orange Festival audience with Jean Barraque’s Sonata, his incendiary calling card at LACMA last year.

For his programs this year, Formenti laid out a personal, perhaps not always workable, plan: “The Gods,” “The Heroes” and “The Men,” spanning the last century from Scriabin in 1907 to Jo Kondo in 1996. Rather than a dry-as-dust chronology, there were interesting byways that proved valuable. The tortuous reachings in a set of Etudes by Russia‘s Nikolai Roslavets, which began the first program, made the tortuous reachings in Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata, later on the same program, into something almost mistakable for musical sense. Framing the third program were two remarkable exercises in enhanced piano sonority: some small pieces by Helmut Lachenmann at the start that drew resonances out of piano keys held but not sounded; at the end an Alvin Lucier piece for piano and “amplified sonorous vessels” that created some of the same effects electronically. (And, therefore, easier? Less artistic? Formenti provided his own answer, a Debussy Prelude -- Feux d‘Artifice -- as encore that, eons earlier, had made some of the same sounds.)

It was this element of wit, of program building with imaginative juxtapositions, that invited an audience to retrace Formenti’s own voyages of discovery, that made these concerts memorable even beyond the awesome skill of his performances. As an interpreter he is his own man; beside the visionary heat of his Scriabin Fifth Sonata, the famous Horowitz recording may observe the markings more precisely but sounds like dry bones; in a group of Messiaen pieces in the second program, you could almost believe that Formenti had co-opted Messiaen‘s ecstasies as well as his notes. I love the intelligence in his playing, and his respect for mine; in even the most agonizing of his inscrutable choices -- a pair of manic sonatas by Galina Ustvolskaya, let’s say, scored for fists and forearms -- he gave off the sense of having resolved the madness as well as the music.

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What kind of pianist is this Formenti, outside the specialized atmosphere of the present and immediate past? We don‘t know yet, although he dropped a tiny hint, offering a Schubert “Moment Musical” -- nice and dry and immaculately shaped -- as the encore at the second concert. Do we need to know? Not so long as there is music making up his sleeve similar to what he brought along this time. These were extraordinary concerts, the more so for the multitudes who came along to share.

Upstairs in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, John Kennedy gave last week’s Philharmonic pre-concert talk, a tangle of irrelevances, goof-strewn and clumsily delivered. “Just listen carefully” was his litany of advice for Franco Donatoni‘s Esa (In Cauda V) in its world premiere. Were we, then, to listen only casually to Radu Lupu’s eloquent, beautifully spacious reading of Schumann‘s Piano Concerto, or Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exhilarating delivery of the Beethoven Seventh -- works of which careful listening reveals important newnesses every time? Downstairs in the hall, Salonen gave another talk, which set matters in better perspective.

Donatoni, he said, had been the most influential of his teachers; he composed the work in the hospital where he would die soon thereafter, at 73 last August 17; its title and its dedication bear Salonen‘s name. How, then, could he conduct in public so private a work? The answer, Salonen continued, lay in the work itself, its affirmation and its joyousness. Donatoni, whose fame rests on a small legacy of intricate, abstruse works little known outside his native Italy, has created in this one short score a glorious orchestral romp.

Its harmonies are not easily untangled on first hearing; it’s the spectrum of sound, the manic clatter of xylophone and chimes, the menacing, dark oratory of an oversize brass contingent (six horns, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba) that prove immediately winning. The other complexities will await future -- and surely deserved -- hearings. (What would it take, pray, to include a replay of such a work, only 11 minutes long after all, at the end of a concert, allowing the audience the option to go or stay?) In its final measures, a handful of instruments slide down the scale and out into silence: a presentiment of Donatoni‘s imminent end and, said Salonen, “the best of all possible ways to go.”

I’ve always admired the promotional skills of Southwest Chamber Music, if not always their music making, and if someone suggests that the group arranged this month‘s asteroid landing to promote its latest concert, I won’t argue. I earned early fame with my review (“a star-studded egg” in the New York Herald-Tribune) of John Cage‘s Atlas Eclipticalis at its 1964 New York premiere, and nothing would do but that I had to check it out again, as the Southwest people brought it to Zipper Hall to tie in with Pasadena’s “Universe” celebration. Cage and I had, in the meantime, become friends, which is not the same as each of us knowing what the other was about. Atlas Eclipticalis is built out of fascinating premises on paper; I just don‘t understand why it has to be performed.

The piece, by the way, comes with options, other works of Cage that can be added on by choice. The Leonard Bernstein performance I reviewed ran eight minutes; James Levine’s recording on DG runs 14; Southwest‘s Jeff von der Schmidt announced his as 40-plus, with the ensemble bolstered by young players from Pasadena’s John Muir High School. At Zipper, the second of two performances, they didn‘t quite make it. At about 32 minutes there was a sudden crash onstage, and a young percussionist named Jonathan Miller keeled over in a faint. He was soon revived, but the piece ended at that point. You try standing on an overlit stage, making sense out of abstruse counting derived from star maps, the I Ching and, for all I know, the downtown telephone book. Anyhow, John Cage would surely have approved.

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