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Robson shows versatility

He sparkles with display of speed, control and delicacy as Piano Spheres opens season.

October 02, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Mark Robson opened a new season of Piano Spheres on Tuesday night at the Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall with a display of dazzling speed, exquisite control and surprising delicacy for a player with his burly strength. The music was unusual, interesting and important. The audience was not large, but the atmosphere was that of a salon of connoisseurs. It was a terrific occasion.

Piano Spheres is a uniquely Los Angeles series. It was started 10 years ago by a local legend, Leonard Stein, as a way, the octogenarian pianist and former secretary to Arnold Schoenberg told Tuesday's audience, for him to keep playing. Gathering four impressive if considerably younger colleagues (Robson, Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray and Susan Svrcek), he organized the annual programs, during which each pianist plays a recital of music not likely heard anywhere else. All are superb musicians who work gigs around town playing this and that; at Piano Spheres, they are themselves.

With a day job at Los Angeles Opera as assistant chorus master, Robson gets less exposure than some of his other colleagues. Yet he is a born soloist. With a cool manner and stunningly secure technique, he reminds me of a great old-school virtuoso such as the late Jorge Bolet. But his musical ideas are up-to-date. He is even a composer himself, and he included the premiere of a new piece on his program.

The big work of the evening was Busoni's Seven Elegies. Completed in 1907 and lasting nearly 40 minutes, these pieces do a remarkable job of capturing the mood of their musically transitional times. In them, Busoni, a great pianist himself, displayed his roots as a Lisztian virtuoso while at the same time pressing music forward into vague shifting tonalities. One elegy makes futuristic hay with Neapolitan folk tunes; another is a glitteringly impressionist arrangement of "Greensleeves." The best, though, are more somber in a moody, spiritual, Germanic manner.

Robson played all seven with an unfussy surety that, like Busoni's music, was able to communicate two things at once. His brilliant finger work commands its own kind of attention, but the probing seriousness of Robson's style easily took the ears much further than the eyes into the sonic depths of Busoni's mystical harmonies.

Robson's new piece, "Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs" -- its title taken from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" -- displayed the pianist's attraction to other mystical music, especially that of Scriabin and Messiaen. A study in tremolo, it began with a long trill in the right hand, decorated by left-hand flourishes in the lower and upper parts of the keyboard, and it never stopped shimmering for its attractive seven minutes. From there, the transition was easy to the seductive, exotic harmonic language of Szymanowski's "Calypso" from his suite "Metopes."

The recital began with an intriguing rarity, Liszt's "Andante Amoroso," a kind of written-out improvisation on the motif that runs through Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique." The final work was Boulez's "Twelve Notations," 12-bar etudes written by the composer in 1945 that have proved to be the source of some of the French composer's most recent orchestral work.

Robson learned these technically demanding pieces in little time when he replaced an indisposed Mitsuko Uchida at the Ojai Festival in June. He played them impressively then. Now he has more fully absorbed them, and he brought exciting character to each one.

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