Music review: Joanne Pearce Martin’s Piano Spheres recital at Zipper Hall

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The great Italian composer Luciano Berio once observed that “a musical work is never alone — it always has a big family to cope with, and it must be capable of living many lives.” That insight seemed to inform Joanne Pearce Martin’s extraordinary and elegiac Piano Spheres recital Tuesday at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall.

The two premieres were both typical of a program filled with musical gestures and remembrances: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Pavane in Memory of Steven Witser,” the principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who died last April at age 48, and Gernot Wolfgang’s “Theremin’s Journey” for Theremin, piano and electronica.

The pianist, in her ninth season as principal keyboardist for the Philharmonic, began by boldly digging into a bright-toned Fazioli piano in four selections from Stephen Hartke’s “Post-Modern Homages,” which included a pleasing riff on Satie. More impressive was Pearce Martin’s finely shaped reading of “Distances” (1988), Meyer Kupferman’s moody memorial to a friend.

Gabriela Frank’s stunning “Sonata Andina” pushed Pearce Martin to the limit with its artful use of Andean folk music and rhythmic drive. The rousing finale, written in homage to Alberto Ginastera, showed her exhilarating power at high speed. In the inventive second movement, “Himno Inca,” Pearce Martin became her own percussion section, clapping and making ticking sounds with her mouth.


But the heart of her program came after intermission with Salonen’s “Pavane.” The piece, about six minutes, references the trombone theme in Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, which was the first big solo Witser played with the Philharmonic and Salonen. There are hints of French Impressionism throughout, then the music seems suspended and suddenly stops. Some in the audience were in tears.

Well into Wolfgang’s “Theremin’s Journey,” the electronics cut out, so Pearce Martin started over. The Theremin, a precursor to the synthesizer, is known mostly for that eerie whine from science-fiction films of the 1950s, but it became a lovely expressive thing in Pearce Martin’s hands (she played it standing in bare feet). She also performed on the piano to prerecorded contemplative and jazz-infused grooves. The finale, given to the Theremin, conveyed melancholy. But the pianist chose to conclude her program with the stirring virtuosity of George Antheil’s Toccata No. 2. Life goes on.

-- Rick Schultz