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Music review: Johannes Moser and Phyllis Chen sound off in Malibu

January 25, 2010 |  5:16 pm

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In October, the 30-year-old German cellist Johannes Moser appeared with the venerable orchestra of the Salzburg Mozarteum to play a little Haydn in Orange County. His performance with the musicians from Mozart’s quaint Alpine hometown was wonderfully stylish, but Moser also added his own dazzling cadenzas, which helped remind us that Europe has been through a remodel or two since the 18th century. Old World met the new kids on the block.

Introduction made, now Moser is, as he puts it, “Sounding Off,” which is the name of his publicized tour with pianist-composer Phyllis Chen. Performances are at alternative spaces, clubs and college campuses, the intention being to attract young people who are not necessarily turned on to classical music. Besides standard repertory for cello and piano, the duo schleps an electric cello, a laptop, a toy piano, a music box and enough wires to connect things together and presumably connect these rising young stars with the rest of their generation.

The Malibu stop at Pepperdine College, Sunday afternoon, however, wasn’t exactly off the beaten path nor quite enough of an attraction to bring students indoors on a glittering day along a coastal paradise. Instead, all signs led to a traditional concert for the regular (read: older) matinee crowd that frequents the Stotsenberg Recital Series in the tiny Raitt Recital Hall.

Yes, Stockhausen was on the program (but very little and very tame Stockhausen). Moser’s latest Saint-Saëns CD was for sale in the lobby, which pretty much gave away the game.

Moser Moser began where cellists normally begin -- with Bach. Alone, he played the First Suite with eyes closed, eyebrows in motion and a bit too much forced emotion. But his eloquence remained graciously intact, and his tone was about as beautiful as a cello's can be. Chen joined him next for Debussy’s pristine Sonata and, after intermission, for Shostakovich’s Sonata to end the short program. She is a bold pianist with an excellent sense of color.

The only novelty was a short selection from Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis” (Zodiac). For this Moser played an electric cello, which had a slender fuselage and small wings (allowing him to hold it between his legs). He had his laptop nearby on which he created electronic loops and probably could have also used as a remote control to send the instrument aloft. Chen began at the piano but soon moved across stage and crouched next to an amplified toy piano.

The performance was not unengaging, but it was no more Stockhausen than John Coltrane’s take on “Greensleeves” is ye olde English music. “Tierkreis” contains a series of melodic formulas that the visionary German composer created originally for music boxes and then used as the basis of a conceptual score, in which repetitions and embellishments are permitted and the instrumentation is not specified. Moser and Chen made their own 10-minute pop version of “Libra” and “Aries,” and they threw in Chen’s own “Stardust,” for electric cello and toy piano, for good measure.

That Stockhausen, who had a phobia against backbeats, would have likely hated this is of no consequence. Throughout history musicians have done what the pop world now calls covers of others’ works. Many have given Bach a beat, and now and then that’s worked.

But Moser’s and Chen’s electronic noodling was their electronic noodling. Chen’s toy piano playing, in particular, proved a dazzling delight. So let them go on noodling and here’s hoping they can make something of it. But Stockhausen’s radical musical universe went considerably beyond their quotidian one.

Moser and Chen also tried to make the Debussy an Shostakovich sonatas something other than they are. The Debussy, a restrained neo-Classical work, was asked to express strong emotion.  Shostakovich’s neo-Romantic sonata, on the other hand, was played as pure music, not as an unrepressed howl against political repression.

Chen found the Bach in Shostakovich’s piano part. Moser’s tone was lean and his phrasing was the last word in elegance. If the Debussy was too much, the Shostakovich was just right, a terrific performance on every level.

Perhaps a hipper place would have elicited a couple of hip encores. But there were none. Just Saint-Saëns in the lobby.

-- Mark Swed

Related story:

Johannes Moser wants you to relax into classical music

Photos: (top) Johannes Moser and Phyllis Chen performing Stockhausen on electric cello and amplified toy piano Sunday at Pepperdine College; (below) Moser playing Bach. Credit: Axel Koester / Los Angeles Times