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A low profile that belies technique

Pianist Mark Robson shines in recital at Zipper Concert Hall.

March 29, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

OF the four permanent members of the local group Piano Spheres, Mark Robson has the lowest profile. He is a former behind-the-scenes pianist and assistant conductor for Los Angeles Opera, but he may, in fact, be better known in Paris, where he gave a series of recitals last fall. His ongoing Beethoven sonata cycle is scheduled to conclude next month at an off-the-radar church in South Pasadena.

Perhaps Robson simply doesn't get out much. He included in the biography for his marvelous Piano Spheres recital Tuesday night at the Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall the fact that he has yet to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony live.

But one thing this spectacular pianist clearly does is practice. He has one of the great techniques. He has an inquiring mind. And he put together a program Tuesday of hard-to-categorize mid- to late Modernist music that made perfect sense to the ear. He called it "Fast-Soft-Loud-Slow." I would add Overstated-Garish-Ghoulish-Understated and, maybe, Bright-Aggressive-Mellow-Dark.

There was, to begin, Louis Andriessen's belligerent "Trepidus," ferociously yet engagingly banged out. Next, Morton Feldman's "Last Pieces," a series of muted chords freely played, was 15 minutes of exquisite engulfing pastel haze. Mauricio Kagel's "MM 51: Ein Stuck Filmmusik fur Klavier" followed Feldman like a drunken lout squashing a garden of delicate flowers. The score, written in 1976, is a stunt.

For it, Robson changed from new-music black shirt and slacks to concert dress tails, not quite put together and with fly open. He lunged onstage waving scissors. Kagel intended the piece as pseudo film music. The pianist performs against a tyrannical metronome, gestures melodramatically, cackles like a villainous landlord demanding the rent and plays threatening tremolos. The piece ended with Robson slumped over the keys, the metronome still clicking away.

The recital's second half began with the piano version of John Cage's 1947 ballet score, "The Seasons." This music surprises with its Satie-esque shimmer, its poignant half-heard melodies, its sense not of passing weather but of passing consciousness, of quiescence (winter) and preservation (summer). The piano writing is not especially difficult, but Robson gave it a virtuoso spin and made it glisten with unsuspected colors.

He then concluded with Gyorgy Ligeti's four last etudes. The late Hungarian composer's 18 etudes may one day become as common as Chopin's 27 -- if geneticists find a way of producing a super race of 12-fingered pianists. For now, though, very few mortals can manage the pieces. Robson is one. He tossed off the luminous "White on White" (No. 15), the incandescent "Pour Irina" (No. 16), the frantic "A bout de souffle" (No. 17) and the tortuous Canon (No. 18) as if none were more trouble than those gauzy Feldman chords, but, just as in the Cage, he brought to them wondrous coloration.

Robson is a major pianist with a small career. Maybe that is good in that it means local audiences get to hear great playing in small spaces for reasonable prices. Still, it means he has also been turning up lately as an organist -- "with a view," he says in that bio, "to increasing my earning potential in the world."

It is hard to understand why composers aren't lining up to write for Robson. And as for Beethoven's Ninth, someone should invite him to hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct it at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. Then someone should invite him to appear on the Bowl stage himself.

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