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Listen: Mystic Beethoven by way of '33 Variations'

February 15, 2011 | 11:00 am

In music, mystique can surround not just flashy divas and reclusive performers but formidable compositions.  Nearly two centuries later, Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations continue to fascinate, puzzle and transport listeners to cosmic heights.

This month, the stars have aligned over Southern California for the “Diabelli” Variations. Pianist Peter Serkin performs them as part of a recital Tuesday at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre.  And through March 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, Jane Fonda stars in Moisés Kaufman’s play “33 Variations,” which delves into the origins and mysteries of Beethoven’s longest piano work.

Sharing the stage with Fonda and the rest of the “33 Variations” cast is pianist Diane Walsh, who discusses with The Times her personal journey with the “Diabelli” Variations. Walsh joins a long line of pianists who have championed the music, including Artur Schnabel, Piotr Anderszewski and Alfred Brendel (performing the final four variations in the video above). Yet none of these pianists has had the challenge of playing this work as many as eight times a week as part of a theatrical run.

“I got to where I really enjoyed the rhythm of it, but it was certainly something new for someone who had only played concerts before that,” Walsh says.

Kaufman’s play explores subjects of mortality, mother-daughter relationships and the creative process vis-à-vis Beethoven’s music.  Foremost among the play’s questions is why Beethoven composed such a challenging and ambitious piece based on a humble waltz.  Could it all be just a vast cosmic joke? “I think that the mystery of the play is really the mystery of life,” Walsh says.

Click here to read the full story on the music behind the play.


Theater review: '33 Variations' at the Ahmanson Theatre

-– Matthew Erikson