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Music Review

Pianist Stein Plays Homage to American Master Composers

November 27, 1998|DANIEL CARIAGA

When Leonard Stein titled his latest Piano Spheres program "Three American Masters," he did so with perfect appropriateness. As musicians move into the next century, the keyboard works of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles and Roger Sessions ought to be, if not part of their functional repertories, at least a strong element in their background and thinking.

The opportunity to hear live performances of Ives' neglected First Sonata (the familiar "Concord" Sonata is his second), Ruggles' resonant "Evocations" and Sessions' admirable Sonata No. 2 (1946) should have brought out even more intrigued listeners to Neighborhood Church in Pasadena Tuesday night than it did. These are important pieces. The musically astute, technically resourceful Stein, who will be 82 on Dec. 1, laid them out compellingly, and with complete mastery.

That is saying a lot, for all three works demand great mechanical flexibility, strength and concentration. These Stein provided in full. In the process, he made strong cases for each piece.

Written in 1909, Ives' First Sonata requires much from the listener, even one with ears attuned to today's music. It is uncompromisingly atonal and violent, even when incorporating popular religious tunes as well as frequent references to ragtime. It can be hard to bear, and its 42-minute length does not help its accessibility. Still, one had to be grateful to hear it, especially as handsomely presented as it was here.

Sessions' attractive, compact, relentless, sometimes Prokofiev-esque Second Sonata deserves at least as much currency as Ginastera's popular First, written six years later. Stein's advocacy should assist in spreading the word. Ruggles' "Evocations" are short and pithy, rhapsodic but granitic miniatures, preludes in stone--worth cherishing, as thepianist's readings proved again.

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