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A Magnum of Opuses

In a series of Beethoven sonatas, pianist Mari Kodama will demonstrate how much she has learned about her chosen instrument.

November 21, 1999|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Ask a 10-year-old what he or she wants to be when grown up and you may get a firmly expressed answer. Few kids, though, would be expected to take action on their choice and probably fewer see it through to realization.

Mari Kodama at that age, however, had little trouble committing to the piano. Music was in her genes, and the piano had been one of the constants of her peripatetic childhood. Her mother had been a concert pianist, and her father worked for Sumitomo Bank. When she was 6, Kodama's family left Japan to follow him to postings in Germany, Switzerland, France and England.

"While my mother was pregnant with me, she was very sick. She gave a poor concert once and then decided to concentrate on teaching. Many students came to the house all day long, and I just assumed that the whole world played piano," Kodama recalls, in L.A. on a short excursion from her current home in the Bay Area. "My parents tell me I wanted to start when I was 2, but they thought that was too young. So I started when I was 3 and learned to read the notes.

"When I was 10, my parents thought that we should decide whether I should go back to Japan and prepare for a good university, or if I should study music in Europe, as a more universal language. I had to ask myself if I could live without the piano--it was clear to me that I could not."

With that settled, Kodama blossomed rapidly. She entered the Paris Conservatory when she was 14. While still a teenager she made the rounds of the European competition circuit, and she made her Japanese debut in 1984 at 17, quickly entering the pantheon of musical heroes there.

Her breakthrough came before she turned 20, with her London debut in 1987, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the London Philharmonic. Composer and critic Anthony Payne reviewed her "astonishing performance" in the Independent. "Prokofiev's more extrovert writing drew a response of physical and emotional commitment . . . [and] there was also a touching delicacy and elegance in quieter moments. Miss Kodama obviously possesses a great range of keyboard colors together with the inner resources to deploy and integrate them on a large canvas--she is altogether a remarkable artist."

A decade later, Kodama is a much-prized member of the younger generation of thoughtful and adventuresome virtuosos, and she is as busy as she cares to be. She began this season on the East Coast, playing Bach and Mozart for the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, and Schoenberg for the Bard Music Festival. In April and May she will tour Japan playing Mozart and Poulenc duo concertos with her younger sister, Momo Kodama.

And here in Los Angeles, beginning a week from Tuesday, she tackles Beethoven--all 32 of the composer's sonatas, in fact. Broken into six programs, the sonata cycle will be presented by Southwest Chamber Music over three seasons.

"I have played many of these sonatas before, of course, but this is the first time that I'm doing them all. It is a big challenge, and very, very intriguing," Kodama says. "Jan Karlin [SCM executive director] had to wait awhile for my programs. I played through all the sonatas, many times in different orders, to hear what combinations would go best, not only on paper but also in sound."

First up, Nov. 30 at Pasadena Presbyterian Church and repeated Dec. 2 at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, are the three sonatas of Opus 10, followed by Opus 78 and then Opus 81a, "Les Adieux." This season's second set follows in mid-December.

"I think it is good to keep the sets, the sonatas of one opus, together, and I knew I wanted to start with Opus 10. I also wanted to find a balance between major and minor keys, and I think I will keep the last sonatas until the last season."

With the cycle spread across three seasons--but always around Southwest's annual Beethoven birthday (Dec. 16) marathon--Kodama realizes that her audience may not carry detailed memories from year to year. But the cycle context has enriched the sonatas for her, and she thinks that hearing even just one of the programs could be special.

"It is different when there is just Beethoven on the program," she says. "He gets more freedom that way, more of his own personality than when matched with others. You can learn an awful lot about Beethoven, how he uses harmony and his phrasing, and how it develops--the early and late sonatas sound almost like the work of different composers."

Beethoven seems to attract the cyclically minded. Though hardly annual events, performances of the complete string quartets are not rare, and we even heard a survey of the nine symphonies from John Eliot Gardiner and his period instrument orchestra last spring at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Kodama remembers that Daniel Barenboim once conducted all of the symphonies and played all of the concertos over a month in Japan.

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