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Music review: Mark Robson's Piano Spheres recital

March 7, 2012 | 12:21 pm

Mark Robson
Mark Robson’s annual Piano Spheres recital Tuesday was true to form. The program was personal, full of surprises, insights and sensational pianism. Robson has an effortless, old-school, monster technique that he applies to the new school. He expresses pleasure in modern music that is progressive, and modern music that is charmingly not, just as long as it has something to say about the piano.

Also true to form, Robson lived up to his reputation as the best-kept keyboard secret in Los Angeles. Piano Spheres holds its concerts at Zipper Hall, for which there was a decent turnout of regulars on Tuesday. The hall is part of the Colburn School, at least physically. I can’t say for sure that no students attended, but from appearances, it didn’t look as though any did. About a third of the seats were empty.

Perhaps Colburn students are too careerist to care about a major pianist who is not glamorous (at least in the Lang Lang or Yuja Wang way). If so, Tuesday was a sad night. But it wasn’t sad for those of us in the audience.

Robson began with a dose of European, Asian and American high Modernism over the past half century, each a different but related kind of study in reverberation. Swiss composer Beat Furrer’s 2004 Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces) included obsessively attacked individual notes, star-fields of radiant tone clusters and a magical, watery, post-Debussy wash.

Jumping back to the early '50s, Stockhausen’s mathematically severe but just as sparkly Klavierstück V contrasted central pitch points with, as Stockhausen put it, “rapid group of little satellites around them … like moons around planets and planets around a sun."

Also from the '50s was Toru Takemitsu’s “Uninterrupted Pause.” Its honeyed harmonic style is more in the manner of Messiaen (with whom Stockhausen studied), the night sky here twinkled as a maker of moods and a reflector of after-effects. The Japanese composer asked that its middle section be played quietly “and with a cruel reverberation.”

The first half ended with American composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski’s “Sideshow,” the last of his four “Squares” from 1978. Here the reverberations are the aftershocks of a jazzy percussive style. Robson might have even better connected this with the above by also including the third “Square,” “Noctamble,” a Messiaenic evocation of night-flying insects.

The evening's second half began with the premiere of Bruno Louchouarn’s “Drive Through.” The Mexican-French composer has many sides. He is a cognitive scientist who teaches at Occidental College. He has composed for film (including “Total Recall”), dance and theater, as well as for multimedia events and art installations (he was a presence in Pacific Standard Time). He has an electronica alter ego, along with a percussion one, a pop one and an experimental side. He also makes films, and he made one to go along with “Drive Through.”

His music, though, is not hyperactive. “Drive Through” was just the opposite, being agreeably laid back, finding grooves and comfortably staying with them. The film was a jump-cut road trip from the San Gabriel Valley through downtown L.A. and along Wilshire to the 405, and a quick "drive through" stop at McDonald's. I liked the film best when I didn’t recognize the locations, but the use of color tints gave even Walt Disney Hall a warm and old-timey look.

Then Robson was back in the ‘50s. But this time he turned to the then-Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin with colorful, period pieces suggesting Russian sleigh rides and Spanish flamenco. The pieces were clearly written for Russian pianists with monumental techniques. Robson made them sound like child’s play.

The last work was Conlon Nancarrow’s innocently titled, short three-movement Sonatina, written in 1941 and the evening’s earliest work. In his excellent program notes, Robson mentioned that Nancarrow, an American composer who settled in Mexico City, wrote his Sonatina for human hands (Robson’s italics).

That’s because the piece is so contrapuntally crazy that Nancarrow, one of the greatest and most maverick-like of the American mavericks, shortly thereafter gave up on human hands and devoted himself to writing for the player piano. It is in the player piano version that Sonatina is best known.

The performance here was stunning. Robson did what a player piano does and he did what a human does too. The notes were all there, the rhythms were all there, but the living pianist brought warmth and a sense of music made for the moment.


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-- Mark Swed

Photo: Mark Robson performs the premiere of Bruno Louchouarn's "Drive Through" at Zipper Hall Tuesday night. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times.