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Schoenberg, Sure, but Bach Too

Leonard Stein once was Arnold Schoenberg's assistant, but the piano group he's co-founded isn't limited to the composer's works.

May 12, 1996|Daniel Cariaga | Daniel Cariaga is The Times' music writer

Leonard Stein--trim, fast-moving, white-haired at 79--is nothing if not formidable. As a young pianist back in the '30s, he was composer Arnold Schoenberg's right-hand man, and he went on to become the founding director of the Schoenberg Institute at USC, as well as a living repository of all things Schoenbergian.

For six decades, he taught upcoming generations of musicians at nine local colleges and universities, including UCLA, UC San Diego and CalArts, in addition to USC. At the same time, he was a ubiquitous presence--playing, writing program notes, occasionally conducting--in the seminal Monday Evening Concert series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Since his retirement from the Schoenberg Institute in 1991, Stein has been in demand around the world as a lecturer and roving scholar. And he remains, as always, an active, concertizing pianist.

"When I first met him," says a much younger keyboardist-about-town, Gloria Cheng, "he terrified me." It was the mid-'70s, and Cheng, a student at UCLA, had been invited to perform at the institute. "I was playing Schoenberg's Opus 19 pieces in the concert room and he wandered in," Cheng remembers. "He listened for a while and then commented: 'Well, that's not pianissimo.' Coming from him, it really bothered me."

But, Cheng says, as a doctoral candidate at USC a few years later, she got to know him better. "It came to me that there was no reason to be afraid of him," she says. "He's just a sweet man who knows a lot."

Now, Stein and Cheng and a handful of other pianists are partners in Stein's latest contribution to Southern California music history. Two years ago, he thought of filling a gap in the local performance scene by starting up a new recital series of, by and for the players. Tuesday night at the series' usual venue, the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, Stein will close Piano Spheres' second season with an eclectic agenda that goes a long way toward explaining what the series is all about.

His program combines works by Bach, Dallapiccola, Sessions, Hanns Eisler and a Piano Spheres commissioned-work by Joel Feigen.

Esoteric--and mostly 20th century programming, yes? "Yes, but," Stein replies, resisting the pigeonhole.

"We did not start the series just to hear new or recent music. The first purpose was to give us, the pianists, a chance to play interesting repertory, [repertory we] wanted to pursue, music that is unusual or neglected." It just happens, Stein notes wryly, that music written in this century also fits that description.

"Variety is the main thing," he insists, in his quiet but persistent way.

Since its beginnings in 1994, Piano Spheres' principals--at that time Stein, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svrcek (Gloria Cheng joined in the second season)--have "met several times a year to put the programs together," Stein says.

"I never tell anyone what to play. It does happen, however, that these people all have a leaning toward music of our own century."

But not exclusively. Next season, for instance, on the opening program, composer-pianist Robson will introduce his 24 Preludes for the Left Hand, but he will also play "Reminiscences de Norma" by Franz Liszt.

According to the players, Piano Spheres has had a grass-roots feel from the beginning.

"The series was Leonard's brainstorm," Svrcek says. "Then the four of us sort of put it together. We went to see the old Steinway at the Neighborhood Church. The room was nice, and the piano almost as good as we wanted.

"But, for the first concert, Leonard brought in his own [Steinway] piano. After that, Vicki and I went to see [piano dealer] David Abell. He helped us out by providing the Fazioli for all our subsequent concerts.

The series has attracted growing audiences and enthusiastic reviews. But the pianists aren't in any hurry to formalize the proceedings. "We're not sure we want to get into all that trouble of recruiting a board of directors, raising money, etc.," Svrcek says. Adds Stein: "Eventually, we may need to get a manager and to incorporate. But we are not yet at quite that point.

"Our budget is a deficit," he says, only half joking. "We pay as we go. The church gives us a nice break on the rental, we have a small subscription list and we pay additional expenses out of our own pockets. This is purely a cooperative venture."

Svrcek says, "Leonard has set up a bank account for the series. We sometimes share some small profits, but mostly the money from tickets goes back into the series.

"Each player pays for the cartage [of the loaned Fazioli]; we also take care of the printing of fliers, and each of us is responsible for mailing postcards out before our recitals. We divvy up the costs and the labor of mailing."

Svrcek, like Robson, Ray and Cheng, is a former student of Stein's, having worked with him at CalArts in the late 1960s. As with Cheng, student and teacher first connected over Schoenberg's music.

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