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Pianist gives Modernists their due

October 04, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The generation of great Modernists who moved music into new, abstract and expressionistic directions after World War II is often accused of having done irreparable harm to classical music. In the visual arts, we now hail the Abstract Expressionists, as we do the jazz innovators of the '50s and '60s, the Beats in literature and the French filmmakers of the New Wave. Yet the equivalent rebellions in classical music are still said to instill fear in the hearts of listeners.

The Gloria Cheng program that opened Piano Spheres' new season Tuesday night in the Colburn School's Zipper Hall paid tribute to such Modernists and the slightly younger (at 70) Helmut Lachenmann. One youngster was allowed in with the premiere of the Piano Sonata No. 1 by Dante De Silva, born in 1968.

A hard sell? One to terrorize listeners? Hardly. The hall was full. Even Piano Spheres seemed taken by surprise and had failed to print enough programs.

In introducing several of the pieces, Cheng noted their formidable technical difficulties. But she also made it clear that those issues were her problem, not ours. Hard piano music is nothing new for the virtuoso; our job is to take pleasure in the results.

As described by Cheng, Berio's Sequenza IV (1966), with its interplay of hammered-out resonances and busy movement, was like a shy person going through life, growing. The pianist also demonstrated the personality behind the intricate constructs in Elliott Carter's "Intermittences," written two years ago, playing it as if eavesdropping on colorful characters at a party.

Takemitsu's "Litany," the Japanese composer's 1989 reworking of a piece from 1950, became a study in muted color. Messiaen's 1949 "Cantéyodjayâ" was revealed as a Champagne-drunk burst of Indian rhythm.

Xenakis' 1973 "Evryali" was not merely a brilliant pianistic spray but also the sounds of nature and the waves of excitement from a political demonstration -- by a composer who was a freedom fighter in World War II.

Playfulness was also a part of postwar pianistic progress. Lachenmann and Cage celebrate a percussion instrument. In "Guero," the German composer turns the hand around; his piece was written to be played with fingernails. Cheng, like other pianists, used credit cards, which clattered up the keys and along the strings to arresting effect.

In Cage's 1952 "Water Music," a radio plays and the pianist undertakes many anti-pianistic activities, including blowing on a duck whistle in a bowl of water. The trick is to be serious and let humor arise on its own.

Cheng was silly. But perhaps she needed a break from a long, finger-busting, brain-twisting program that she otherwise made consistently compelling.

De Silva, who belongs to a new generation rebelling against the new, was the odd man out. His sonata, titled "Arcata," took Beethoven's "Les Adieux" sonata as a model. It returns aesthetically and pianistically to the first part of the 20th century. But he has a feeling for the keyboard, and the bell-like chords of the slow movement were beautiful.

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