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A Grand Way to Season Piano

Times Staff Writer

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his 32 piano sonatas over a span of 27 years.

Robert Haag plans to play them all in 10 hours from memory on Saturday at El Camino College.

“The world won’t collapse over my doing this, but it will be fun,” said Haag, a concert pianist and dean at the college who has been playing the sonatas for 25 years--but never before at one sitting.

While piano marathons are not new--the world’s record of 1,218 hours was set in Australia in 1982--Haag believes his keyboard marathon will be a first for the Beethoven piano works.

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“They were done three or four years ago in New York, but in two segments,” he said.

The musical stunt has a practical purpose. Not only will Haag season the college’s new, nine-foot Steinway concert grand, but he hopes to recoup the $40,000 price from people who pledge money to hear the music.

“If joggers can raise money, why can’t a pianist?” Haag said in an interview. “Actually, it’s easier for me to play 32 sonatas than to run 26 miles.”

Haag said a “good warm-up” for a fine new piano takes 35 to 40 hours of playing. “It’s like driving a new car to get things to mesh,” he said. “A new piano needs consistent playing to loosen up the keyboard and stretch the strings.’

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The free marathon begins at 9 a.m. in the band room in the Marsee Auditorium building on the Torrance campus. People will be able to come and go as they please during the marathon. “We’re asking for donations to the piano fund, but we’re not pegging an amount,” he said.

So far, the college has received $15,000 in pledges--$5,000 from Stuart E. Marsee, who was president of El Camino for 23 years and built the auditorium that bears his name.

Marsee said he plans to attend some of the marathon, but not all 10 hours. “I’ll be with Bob in spirit, if not in body,” he said. “I’m interested in the auditorium and anything that goes on there. What Bob is doing is a labor of love.”

Another major donor, American Honda Motor Co. of Gardena, has pledged $800.

Haag, who is dean of community and cultural affairs at El Camino, has played the complete Beethoven sonata cycle in concert series five times since 1964. The most recent venture ended on March 12 at El Camino, where Haag plays regularly in the Artists in Residence series.

Though primarily a teacher and administrator, the 57-year-old Haag--who made his debut as a pianist at the age of 9 with the Bakersfield Symphony--plays about six concerts a year at El Camino and other colleges, including UC Riverside, Cal State Dominguez Hills and Long Beach and Cerritos community colleges. In addition to the Beethoven sonata cycle, he has performed the complete sonatas of Schubert and Mozart.

Beethoven’s Evolution

But Haag said that presenting in order the pieces--written between 1795 and 1822--in one day is an ideal way to demonstrate Beethoven’s evolution as a composer.

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“The earlier ones have a lot of reflections of the classical style of Haydn and Mozart,” Haag explained, “but in the last ones, he’s doing the things that only Beethoven was doing.” They range from the lyrical and light, he said, to the dark and brooding.

While such sonatas as the “Moonlight” and the “Pathetique” are classical staples, Haag said one-quarter of the pieces are rarely heard in public.

Whether he knew it or not, Beethoven was kind to potential marathoners, according to Haag. “He inserts things that are lighter and easier to play between the heavier works,” he said. “It’s like hiking up a mountain, with level stretches from time to time.”

The marathon was suggested two years ago by John Goddard, an explorer who has been bringing his travel films to El Camino for 21 years. “He’s fond of saying, ‘To dare is to do, to fear is to fail,’ ” said Haag. “We were talking about challenges, and the idea (for the marathon) just grew. . . . It seemed like a natural to help with the new piano.”

Trying Out Pianos

To get just the right piano for the auditorium, a team from the college went to New York City in January, where they met with Steinway officials, tried out pianos and decided on the American-made Steinway as the best instrument to carry sound throughout the hall.

“It is characterized by a very full bass register and an even sound,” said Haag. The piano, which will be used by major artists appearing at the college, is replacing a 22-year-old instrument.

The Steinway was purchased by the college foundation, which Haag also heads. It was formed in 1983 to support college programs.

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Haag plans to make his way through the musical hours with only a few breaks and will tote a supply of “cold milk, bananas and peanuts” for sustenance along the way.

“I have no feel for how large an audience I’ll have,” he said. “People can brown bag it, and no one is expected to stay there for 10 hours.”

Haag said he isn’t doing anything special to prepare for Saturday, explaining that he has been playing the sonatas for so many years that they are in his fingers and in his head.

“As long as my blood pressure is pounding, I’ll keep going,” he said.


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