As a musical complement to "The Paintings of George Bellows" exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Delores Stevens offered a recital of American piano music by the painter's near-contemporaries, Wednesday night in Bing Theater.
What seemed at first a mere convenience, making a virtue out of necessity, the pairing of recital with exhibit soon came to have richer meaning: Stevens had chosen an almost unrelentingly knotty program, visceral, athletic, sometimes just plain brutal, music. It wasn't a stretch to see the connection with Bellows' famous boxing scenes.
The connection literally and amusingly came to the surface with Henry Cowells' "Advertisement" for crashing fists and thumping forearms, realized with much enthusiasm and rhythmic exactness by the pianist. But elsewhere it was also evident.
In fact, the program proved almost unrelieved in its grittiness. It wasn't until well into the second hour, with Gershwin's Piano Preludes, that anything approaching an easy style was broached.
Stevens opened with Ives' thorny "Three-Page" Sonata, continuing with the seldom-heard and bristling "Some Southpaw Pitching," both crisply executed. There didn't seem much to choose from between Copland's "Freely Poetic," "Soft and Languid" and "Muted and Sensuous," all equally pensive and acerbic, though "With Bounce," an out-of-kilter ragtime, picked things up briefly.
As a set the Cowell pieces worked most effectively: Along with "Advertisement" came the otherworldly strumming of "Banshee" and "Aeolian Harp" and the early "Fabric," a charming lyrical study with complex rhythmic accompaniment.
The L.A.-based pianist gave Ruggles' chiseled "Evocations" an aptly intense and spacious reading, lending an equal measure of ferocity to the Sonata by Griffes.
If Stevens seemed slightly fatigued toward the end of this physically demanding recital--well, so might anyone be. She proved never less than authoritative, however, in readings of great clarity, muscle and finesse.