This week, Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School hosted the latest installment of the Piano Spheres series, a concert by pianist Mark Robson entitled “The Debussy Project.” Specifically, the program placed Debussy’s Douze Etudes against a set of compositions by living composers—each responding in their own way to a particular etude from Debussy’s set.
Robson’s command of the Debussy was stunning: watching his performance, one could get lost in the theater of fingers built into the work. But beneath the virtuosic flurries was a technical mastery that highlighted Debussy’s emphasis on texture, and amplified the orchestral spirit of his piano writing. The simplicity of concept that underpins each etude might have risked sounding like a progression of, well, studies, but in Robson’s hands they provided a window into how various musical materials were treated by Debussy to create a musical language rich with contrast, layers, and detail.
The twelve accompanying composer reactions constituted the second half of the recital, and the range of styles and approaches indicated the degree to which Debussy’s language continues to serve as musical inspiration, continues to provide a bridge between past and future. Some focused on his style: Kotcheff’s work evoked virtuosic and dramatic contrasts, and Ivanova’s explored the commenting, often brash, musical interruptions. Bansal and Kohn both tapped into Debussy’s proclivity for sheathing his musical ideas with layers of sparkling textures—a foregrounding of detail taken to the extreme by Gates, whose piece unfolded flurries and sheets of sound until a final, tender conclusion.
Others focused on exploding those details out of time completely, exploring harmony and texture carefully and without Debussy’s liberated, roaming abandon. Rothman and Gibson used low piano harmonics to create a patient, meditative atmosphere anchored by the resonance of the piano. Norton’s response utilized two pianos (Vicki Ray joined Robson on stage for this) for spacious, overlapping textures that in their freedom managed to capture something of Debussy’s penchant for fleeting sentimentality, that return later as tinted, softly-distorted memories. Also in this vein was Robson’s own reaction, a magic act of sorts, summoning rich timbres and sonorities that moved seamlessly between the piano and electronics.
It might have been interesting to have seen the works paired directly with their inspirational counterpart, but hearing the progression of Debussy’s original twelve etudes in direct sequence, in my opinion, better prepared the audience by giving a framework to identify and appreciate the various types of inspiration and influence employed by the commissioned works. It is rare that a solo piano recital of this length can maintain my interest throughout, but the quality of Robson’s performance and the strength of the music was certainly worthy of the audience’s attention. And from what I could hear in muffled murmurs around the hall between pieces, Piano Spheres has succeeded in building an audience that is willing to give that attention, and which is appreciative of the talent presented.
On Saturday, July 21, 2018 Piano Spheres held a new music salon at the West Hollywood home of James Schultz. The theme of the afternoon was “What to Listen for in New Music.” Pianist Aron Kallay and Heidi Lesemann, executive director of Piano Spheres, were on hand to meet and greet. There was a literally full house as friends and patrons wedged themselves into a small drawing room filled with folding chairs and a grand piano. Mark Robson was the featured artist, and he came equipped with ten short pieces of piano music dating from the early 1900s to a new work to be premiered in the coming concert season.
The program began with Robson playing through some pieces without identifying them, and then asking the audience for their reactions, the name of the composer and the date the music written. When asked how many people regularly attended new music concerts, quite a few hands went up – the followers of Piano Spheres being generally knowledgeable – and these listening exercises immediately proved popular.
The listeners described the first piece played by Robson as “dense” and “animated” as well as “contrasty”. Guesses for the date varied widely, from early 20th century to late 1950s. When the piece was revealed to be Schoenberg’s Op. 11, no. 3, composed in 1909, there were some surprised looks among the crowd. The next piece was diagnosed as having repeating phrases with a limited harmonic structure and was so quickly identified as a work by Philip Glass, his Metamorphosis One from 1988. Some Messiaen followed, one of his many bird pieces, and this was a bit more difficult for the audience to identify, even as it was acknowledged to have a very distinctive character.
Robson’s choices and eloquent comments proved not only enlightening, but pointed to some helpful guidelines for listening to new music, such as how to be open to new experiences, to observe your feelings when hearing a piece, and having some bearings as to where a piece fits into the last 100 years or so of musical history. A discussion on concert program notes followed. Are they useful? What should they contain? Should you read them before or after hearing a piece? More varieties of contemporary piano music followed, from the lesser known Soviet composer Galina Ulstvolskaya’s Sonata no. 4 (1957) to Into Thin Air (2014) by James Soe Nyun, of the present decade. Robson also offered a preview of a new work by Karl Kohn that will be premiered during the coming Piano Spheres concert season.
The coming concert season marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Piano Spheres. Six performances are scheduled. They are:
September 11, 2018: Mark Robson – The Debussy Project. The Debussy Etudes with responses by contemporary composers
November 27, 2018: Gloria Cheng – Garlands for Steven Stucky. A tribute to the late contemporary composer
February 26, 2019: Vicki Ray – Feldman/Butoh. Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu of the Flux Quartet and Butoh dancers
April 2, 2019: Susan Svrček – Schoenberg Reimagined with Nic Gerpe
May 28 2019: Jeffrey Kahane – Kahane Plays Kahane… and more. Special guest appearance by the former director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
June 15, 2019: Michael Lang – Piano Spheres first foray into the piano as a jazz instrument.
The salon was a convivial event, enjoyed by all who attended. Informative yet intimate, this was a great way to preview the upcoming Piano Spheres season.
Karl Kohn is highly respected as a composer and pianist, not just in Los Angeles but also throughout the world. He’s also had a long career both as a teacher and on the board of directors of Monday Evening Concerts. In light of the upcoming Piano Spheres concert (this coming Tuesday, November 7), where Mark Robson will be playing a solo piano work by Kohn (Seven Brevities), I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about composing, his long performance career as a pianist, Monday Evening Concerts, and more. Here’s what he had to say:
Having served for two decades on the board of directors for Monday Evening Concerts, could you tell us about your experience there? Do any particular memories stand out?
The connection with MEC was very important for my wife Margaret and me. Under Lawrence Morton’s directorship the concerts were an opportunity to hear and to perform old repertoire as well as many new works, both by contemporary American and by European composers. Our collaborations and friendship with Pierre Boulez was special and delightful, but the list of other wonderful and meaningful composers and musicians with whom we worked is very lengthy.
Has your childhood growing up in Vienna informed the type of music you like to play/write? How so?
I was brought up in the Viennese Classics but also played some Debussy and Ravel. It was not until the years at Harvard that I played my first piece of twentieth-century music, Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata. My freshman advisor at Harvard, Edward Ballantine, sent me packages of music while I served in the Army on Tinian in the Marianas, shipments that included works by Scriabin, Stravinsky, and the last two volumes of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I was a lucky guy.
You’ve composed for a wide range of instrumentations/genres of concert music. Do you have a favorite instrumentation/genre that you like to write for? Least favorite?
I have no favorites, either in the instrumentations/genres, and no favorites, really, among the works that I have composed – I like “all my children!”
Having written extensively for orchestra, what are your thoughts about composing for this medium? Has your opinion changed over time?
I loved writing for orchestra, and also for symphonic band. But for a Los Angeles-area composer (and especially a reasonably shy one situated way out in Claremont) writing for orchestra is not rich in opportunities. Nevertheless I have written several large orchestral works and all have had performances. In recent years, however, I have written and continue to write mostly for smallish chamber combinations of instruments.
How has your performance career as a pianist informed your career as a composer, and vice versa?
I imagine that my career as a pianist has had a very powerful impact on my compositional career, and I have written very much music for the piano, both solo and duo, and also for chamber groups that include the piano.
Your wife Margaret also has a long career as a pianist, and the two of you have performed together as a duo across the world. How do you inspire/encourage each other? What has your career of performing together been like?
Margaret and I started performing together while we were undergraduates at Harvard, almost seventy years ago – wow! For me certainly it has been a great joy to rehearse and play together with her these many years – indeed a blessed life.
Along with composing, you’ve also had a long career as a teacher. What are your thoughts about teaching? Do you find that it changes the way you look at music?
I taught at Pomona College for 44 years and have been retired from teaching since 1994. I like to think that it was a mutually beneficial experience both for my students and me.
You’re known for having a unique voice as a composer, which links an innovative musical style with a deep understanding of European classical tradition. How did your voice as a composer evolve? Where do you find the main sources of your inspiration?
As for my voice as a composer: I was brought up at Harvard in the milieu of American neo-classicism, admiring the music of my teachers Irving Fine, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and also Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. The Monday Evening Concerts and three sabbatical years in Europe gave me an opportunity to stay abreast of current developments from mostly in Europe while at the same time retaining my feet on the ground with teaching – albeit wonderful but more or less initially “unwashed” – undergraduates at Pomona College. I consider that my “style” since the late 1960’s has been referential to the broad historic past of Western, i.e. European and American, art music.
What advice do you have for emerging composers?
Get to know as much music of the past and present as possible, but be aware that this is getting to be ever more difficult in our current musical world. There is no any longer just one musical heritage but rather, in the words of David Noon, a former student: we live now in “a condominium of Babel!”
Check out Piano Spheres for more information on the upcoming concert, Tuesday November 7.
Tuesdays at Monk Space, the series run by Aron Kallay and Jason Heath in K-town, has a really cool mix of old and new happening tonight at 8. The first half of the program features Ensemble Hotteterre performing music by Couperin, Telemann and Phillidor on period instruments. The second is a Mark Robson solo harpsichord show, with pieces by Henry Cowell, Alexander Tcherepnin, Maurice Ohana, György Ligeti, and a premiere from Robson himself, along with selections from Froberger, Rossi, Scarlatti, and Giovanni de Macque for flavor.
Full info on the show is available at http://tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/oldmusic-newmusic.
Next weekend the second annual HEAR NOW festival kicks off in Venice with two days of concerts featuring some of our little city’s best-known composers and an impressively large lineup of local players. Artistic director Hugh Levick had some time this weekend to fill us in on what’s coming up.
We’re less than a week from the festival. How’s it shaping up?
Frankly, Nick, I think we’re looking at two standing-room-only concerts. There are still tickets left, but they are going fast. With Mark Robson playing Thomas Ades, The Lyris quartet playing Don Davis, Burt Goldstein and Veronika Krausas, Don Crockett’s incredible piano trio Night Scenes performed by Joanne Pearce Martin, Shalini Vijayan & Ira Glansbeek (just to mention a few of the highlights) these are going to be two very hot concerts. 15 composers, 25 musicians – we’re all stoked!
As I understand it, this is only the festival’s second year. Tell me about how things got started.
The concept when it was initially conceived was ‘here now gone tomorrow’. Tim Loo and I had been talking about it for a couple years. Let’s hear what’s here now before it’s gone tomorrow. And we knew there was a lot here. Many composers were writing wonderful music and much of it was rarely being heard.
This brave and adventuresome music is hidden away, and the complex, intriguing, exuberant value that it offers has been more or less excluded from the common space of our culture.
Time is a choreography of ruptures, junctions, bifurcations, explosions, cataclysms, and crises. The fissures in Time break the continuum of History in which we live thus allowing the HERE NOW to be shot through with splinters of messianic hope—or, glimmers of light in the dark, which is what we hope The HEAR NOW Festival will be.
What’s different about the festival this year? Were there any things you’ve changed specifically as a result of the experience of the first year?
Except for Bill Kraft, Gernot Wolfgang and myself, all the composers are different from the ones who presented work last year. Gernot amd Gloria Cheng have joined Bill Kraft and the Lyris Quartet as artistic advisors. Ira Glansbeek, Erica Duke-Fitzpatrick, M.B. Gordy, Heather Clark, Suzan Hanson and Mark Robson did not perform last year. Experience taught us that we didn’t have to print up paper fliers–just postcard size and 12X18 posters, and that it would be better to have the 2 concerts on 2 different days rather than, as last year, one at 2PM and one at 8PM. Thanks to Eric Jacobs we have a website. Rather than a Kawai piano this year we have – thanks to Gloria Cheng – a Steinway. One thing regretfully that has NOT changed is that it looks as if – we are still trying to reverse this – the LA Times will not be reviewing the HEAR NOW Festival.
The lineup of musicians on this is really, really impressive. Have you found local performers eager to join in?
As you say, Nick, the players are simply world-class. Every one of them has enthusiastically embraced HEAR NOW. The festival is creating a community of players and composers who want to make contemporary composition and performance into a significant presence here in Los Angeles. Our city is a center of contemporary classical music – this is a simple reality. More people should know about it and have the opportunity to experience it.
I have to ask, partially because I’m a fan of his, but mainly because I’m curious about the logic here. Every single composer on the program lives or is primarily active in Los Angeles, with the exception of only one! Why Thomas Ades?
Thomas Ades now has a home in Los Angeles. He has a position, perhaps it’s ‘Composer-in-Residence’ (?), with the LA Phil.
Well then, learn something new every day. I know that HEAR NOW has curated at least one event outside of the festival. Where do you see the organization heading in the future?
The event of which you are speaking was a fund-raiser in March of this year. Mark Swed was the headliner and, interviewed by Martin Perlich, he was fascinating. It looks like we will be having another fundraiser in December, this one headlined by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be working with the LA Phil at that time. Eventually we would like to get to a situation where we can have the festival two weekends running – one weekend in Venice and the following weekend in a more eastern venue – downtown or Pasadena… We also envisage having,as well as the festival, one or two concerts a year which would feature the music of individual composers. First half Vera Ivanova, for instance; second half, Bill Kraft. Something like that…
That’d be rad. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Saturday the 25th, one week from today at 8 PM is the first HEAR NOW Festival concert; one week from tomorrow, Sunday the 26th at 5PM is the second HEAR NOW Festival concert. There are still some tickets available. You can purchase tickets at our website, www.hearnowmusicfestival.com.
Thank you, Nick, for asking!!
I just received an email from the fine folks over at Piano Spheres that basically said “short notice, but Mark Robson is playing today at noon as part of Play Me, I’m Yours, at the piano at One Colorado in Old Town Pasadena.”
So if you’re somewhere over there on a lunch break (or don’t have a job – and you’re luckier than you think you are), and want to catch a Mark Robson concert for free, now you know where to do it.