By the time pianist Marino Formenti sits down to play, his Steinway must be perfectly out of tune.
Formenti, 36, spent a recent morning at Fields Pianos in West Los Angeles, selecting the Steinways the dealer will lend to him for his upcoming performances at the 2002 Ojai Music Festival. One piece in his eclectic program, "Hommage a Ligeti" by Georg Friedrich Haas, requires two pianos: one tuned in the standard way, the other with each key "de-tuned" downward a quarter-tone.
He will play both pianos, set at right angles, at the same time, one with each hand.
The piano will require several tuning sessions before it is transferred to Ojai for the five-day festival, which begins Wednesday. The instrument must acclimate to this bizarre treatment in stages in order to hold on to the strange new tones.
"When you play them together, it makes beautiful colors, very new colors; it's like the invention of new colors by a painter, if you can imagine," Formenti says excitedly--which is how he says everything. "Shimmering--do you say shimmering?"
Formenti, an Italian pianist who makes his home in Vienna, is not always sure of the English word for what's on his mind, but he knows his preferences in music--and in pianos.
Music: contemporary. "To ask a pianist why he plays the music of today is to ask a painter why he paints abstract paintings rather than flowers, or Madonnas," he observes. "I am an artist living now, I do things of now, in the language of now."
Pianos: a much more personal issue. "That question is as difficult to answer as: 'How do you choose your lovers?'--each piano is very distinctive," Formenti muses. He adds that he prefers choosing pianos to selecting lovers; less risk of rejection. "I choose. It is much better," he says playfully.
Food, he's less picky about. Thai, Indian, anything will do as long as it's nearby--because he's coming back to the piano store to do some more work after lunch. Formenti works all the time. "I am a workaholic, I can't really enjoy doing nothing," Formenti admits, over Indian food. He would like to acquire this skill. "Doing nothing is a way to relax, and I am always on the edge. I live very much on the edge."
Perhaps it is Formenti's perpetual proximity to the edge of workaholism ("I was a very nervous child") that has placed him on the cusp of major critical acclaim--and has resulted in his invitation to perform in Ojai, his first appearance with the festival, in three diverse programs of music ranging from Beethoven to 21st century piano compositions, including the world premiere of a new work by Hanspeter Kyburz.
The theme of the 56th annual Ojai Festival, which includes educational seminars and also features the Emerson String Quartet, singer Ute Lemper and guitarist Eliot Fisk, is "Last and Latest Thoughts." For late, great composers, this means works from among their last compositions; for the living ones, selections from their most recent works.
On Wednesday, Formenti makes his Ojai debut in the festival's first marathon concert, a 6 p.m. to midnight event featuring both the last and the latest, including works by the winners of the festival's Young Composers' Awards.
The festival, whose main venue is Ojai's outdoor Libbey Bowl, also represents Formenti's first time playing outdoors, where the elements will make it even more difficult to keep the Steinway out of tune.
Formenti's first solo appearance in Los Angeles, in a series of four concerts of 20th century music at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in April 2000, inspired Times music critic Mark Swed to place Formenti--"wildly entertaining and technically astonishing"--on his Top 10 list for that year.
Swed has also noted this Olympic detail: In one LACMA concert, Formenti played Jean Barraque's 45-minute Sonata in 23 minutes. In 2001, he shaved another minute off his personal best.
The Orange County Register's Timothy Mangan has called Formenti "a compelling performer who grabs you by both shoulders and shakes," adding that Formenti's challenging style is not one to enjoy with "a leisurely brunch." And, in LA Weekly, Alan Rich confessed himself to be still "obsessed with the memories" of the LACMA concerts more than a year after the event.
Ernest Fleischmann, artistic director of the Ojai Festival, first encountered Formenti several years ago when the pianist was performing as a member of Klangforum Wien, one of the top contemporary-music ensembles in Europe.
"I was really struck by the guy's fearlessness and personality; he seemed to be able to play the most complicated and strange new music and have no problems with it," Fleischmann says.
"Then I heard him at one of the famous concerts at LACMA, and I thought: 'Where has this guy been all my life?'"