Here come the pianists; it’s odd how events tend to clump sometimes. Two weeks ago Peter Serkin and Marino Formenti played interesting, out-of-the-ordinary programs. This week hordes of pianists vie for Rachmaninoff Prize money in Pasadena, with mostly ordinary programs to be judged by mostly ordinary judges, as befits the time-honored rules of the piano-competition arena. Next week Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel give recitals on the same night — an agonizing choice, but made easier because Brendel repeats his program in Irvine two nights later.

The last local major piano competition was also in Pasadena, at (sob!) Ambassador in 1993. It bore the name but also the faulty leadership of Ivo Pogorelich; at least the repertory was interesting and so was the roster of judges. But the winners: Where are they now — Michael Kieran Harvey? Edith Chen?

Now pushing 55, Peter remains ”the young Serkin“ so long as memories and recordings of father Rudolf‘s playing remain to warm the heart. In repertory Peter is very much his own man; his services to new music elevate him to honored status. Even so, I detected some of the elder Rudolf in the soft, pliant and warm-hearted Schoenberg half of Peter’s recent recital; the echoes of Brahms were underlined and hovered most audibly in the Opus 11 pieces; there was a shadowing of the French rococo in the witty, dry-point delivery of the Opus 25 Suite. Oddly, however, the Beethoven half could have used Rudolf‘s touch; the ethereal variations that end the Opus 109 Sonata were, in young Peter’s hands, chill, calculated — Schoenbergian, in fact.

Formenti remains uniquely ours; he has yet to appear as soloist anywhere else in the U.S. He came here first in 1998, with the excellent Klangforum Wien in the off-the-wall Resistance Fluctuations festival, gave spellbinding recitals at LACMA the next two years, participated in last year‘s Eclectic Orange, and returns in May as a major attraction at Ojai (and, would you believe, as assistant conductor for the L.A. Opera’s final double bill). Earlier this month he played at that implausible but ambitious venue, the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, where serious music-making alternates with Las Vegas, and where fire burns welcomingly in the lobby on even the warmest nights. The fare was lighter than Formenti‘s usual, and included his own elegant piano versions of songs from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Most surprising was the First Piano Sonata of Shostakovich, a work almost completely unknown — there are two recordings, on obscure labels — and thus an interesting corollary to the Philharmonic‘s current observance of that composer and, as well, to other Shostakovian activities hereabouts. The Sonata dates from 1926, which places it between the piss-and-vinegar of the First Symphony and the rowdy-dow of the Second (which it more resembles); its one movement lasts about 18 minutes and teems with activism, most of it brutal.

Brutal and Shostakovich: The two seem mutually referential. The recent evening at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse that celebrated them both left me — and everyone I spoke to later — exhilarated and devastated. The 15th Quartet — dark, angry, morose — served as receptacle. The Emerson Quartet‘s gesture, as if to begin the work in normal chamber-concert configuration, merged immediately into a theatrical exegesis on Shostakovich’s struggle to maintain his artistic franchise, interwoven with the broader miasma vented upon the entire Soviet nation under Stalin. (Thus the Sonata that Formenti played had, for anyone fortunate enough to be at both events, somewhat set the stage: the vitality of a young nation‘s artistic aspirations so soon to be trammeled.)

Britain’s remarkable Theater of Complicity had joined the Emerson in creating this eveninglong interweaving of all the senses toward an overpowering end. One tends not to breathe even during ”normal“ performances of this work, Shostakovich‘s last quartet, music from his final illness composed in hospital. This collage, blending three decades of radio sound bites, taped reminiscences (including loving words from the great Rostropovich) and news reports, extended the power of the music as if no boundary existed among the spoken and musical messages gathered into an obsessive new stage work. At the end the Emersons returned and performed the Quartet complete — standing, even the cellist, as if in memoriam — and the music segued into darkness and silence. The Ojai Festival will end with that same music by the same performers. I would suggest you don’t try to drive home immediately afterward.

New music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, his two choral settings of poetry by Ann Jaderlund created for the Swedish Radio, formed the solid center of the Master Chorale‘s otherwise helter-skelter latest program. Rich, romantic music, these a cappella vignettes are ravishing especially in their resonant chording; Salonen’s first music for chorus already shows the hand of a master orchestrator. The pair of songs lasted some 12 minutes; they should have been performed twice.

Grant Gershon‘s overall programming idea was admirable enough: ”Expressions of Love“ through music of Schubert, Schumann, Poulenc and the tragically short-lived Lili Boulanger, sister of Nadia, using a smaller-than-usual ensemble and only Vicki Ray’s piano for substantial support. But three of Schubert‘s love-permeated men’s choruses were overpowered anyhow; this is music for a few warm-hearted guys around a piano, not a chorus on ramps, and the difference was audible. At the end came Poulenc‘s settings of old French songs, and these, too, were drained of intimacy and charm by too many singers standing stiffly and singing likewise. The printed program was a disaster: the wrong dates for Schubert (”1899–1963“!!!), a wrong poem among the song texts, the interweaving of the original texts and English translations so that neither was readable in the dimmed-out hall, typos galore. Those 12 minutes of Salonen’s new works aside (on which the major amount of rehearsal time had obviously been lavished), the evening was a sad deviation from the Master Chorale‘s newly reborn professionalism. Let’s just forget the whole thing.

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