Music review: Toy pianos and Piano Spheres at Disney Hall


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For the occasion of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s ongoing West Coast, Left Coast series, the 16-year-old Piano Spheres recital series was invited to the party. The invitation was logical enough, given the series’ contemporary focus and often West Coast connections. On Sunday night, the series headed across Grand Avenue from its regular venue, Zipper Hall, to the grander expanse of Walt Disney Concert Hall’s stage and house.

What transpired in the program called “California Keyboard” was anything but a neat-and-linear survey of keyboard music, often involving keyboards off to the side of the usual grand piano home base. The series’ accomplished, ever-game pianists — Vicki Ray, Gloria Cheng, Susan Svrcek and Mark Robson — did impressive musical bidding on toy pianos, a Rhodes electric piano (William Kraft’s intriguingly sonorous “Requiescat (Let the Bells Mourn for Us for We are Remiss)’, electric harpsichords (Arthur Jarvinen’s raucous mock-rock-Baroque “The Queen of Spain (Part One)”), and prepared piano (Frederick Lesemann’s secular gamelan-like “Nataraja”). Musically, the program moved from the graceful and jazzy serialism of Mel Powell and Kraft to more abidingly tonal fare.


Opening the evening, tentative ripples of laughter greeted John Cage’s “Music for Amplified Toy Pianos,” but a proper sense of stilled awe soon took over, as Cage’s Zen poise filtered into the hall. Continuing on the gentler path, Robson laid out the tender, loopy lyricism of Henry Cowell’s piano miniatures. Shaun Naidoo’s “Bad Times Coming” was the evening’s token rocker, pitting Ray’s rigorous parts against a fairly sterile, prefab electronic drum groove. In new music, the presence of an insistent groove can still arouse suspicion that riff-raff is invading the serious music temple -- unless said groove is aligned with Minimalism.

Speaking of which, noted West Coast Minimalist Daniel Lentz capped off the concert, working against type. “NightBreaker,” for four unadulterated pianos (finally) proceeds with a tonal, almost post-impressionistic, post-pop language, but Lentz’s sly subversiveness is at work in the margins. Harmonic bearings are never as static as they seem, and motivic fragments continually shift and interrupt each other, to exciting ends. Call it ADD Minimalism, which may seem an oxymoron, but somehow works via Lentz’s individualistic designs.

In short, the concert’s restless invention aptly conveyed the moving target that is “California Keyboard.”

-- Josef Woodard

[Update: An earlier version of this review described the pianists as long-timers Vicki Ray and Gloria Cheng and later arrivals Susan Svrcek and Mark Robson. In fact, Ray, Robson and Svrcek are founding members of Piano Spheres, and Gloria Cheng began in the second year.]