Playing Against the Odds : Pianist Charles Fierro calls his Beethoven performance an ‘apt symbol’ for a return to normalcy after the earthquake.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times</i>

The parallels are few between earthquake-damaged Cal State Northridge and Vienna of the 1809 Napoleonic siege. But there’s inspiration enough there for pianist Charles Fierro from the example of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The German-born composer’s adopted city of Vienna was under fire as Beethoven wrote his publisher: “The existence I had built up only a short time ago rests on shaky foundations. What a destructive, disorderly life I see around me.” And yet that same year, the composer would create his “The Emperor Concerto,” his “String Quartet Concerto, Opus 74,” and other important works.

Beethoven’s life and work continued amid the chaos. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized this is what Beethoven believed in,” said Fierro, a CSUN music professor. “His music, as well as his life, symbolizes courage and even heroism against the odds, against adversity.”

Fierro’s own return to normalcy will be marked Wednesday night in the campus Little Theater with a solo piano performance of a variety of Beethoven pieces. It’s the fifth in a continuing series of Beethoven concerts that Fierro began in 1990, although this one has taken on added meaning for the music department, which still awaits repairs to its building. The facility suffered significant damage during the Jan. 17 earthquake.


“It seemed to me an apt symbol for our assertion of normal life and art in this term,” Fierro said of the concert, and the Beethoven letter he recently rediscovered in a biography of the composer. “That letter from Beethoven could apply to us.”

The music program will include Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” “The Tempest” and “Sonata in G Major, Opus 31, No. 1.” All pieces were composed in 1801 and 1802, and remain core elements of the classical piano repertoire, although it’s an era of music that Fierro has focused his energies on only in recent years.

Before his current study and practice of Beethoven, Fierro was mainly a champion of contemporary classical music by the likes of Aaron Copland. Of Fierro’s five albums of solo piano, recorded in the 1970s and ‘80s mainly for the prestigious Nonesuch and Delos labels, all spotlight the music of contemporary composers, beginning with his former teacher at USC, Ingolf Dahl.

His album of Copland’s “Piano Fantasy” and “Night Thoughts,” the premiere recording of those works, even enjoyed the active support of Copland himself, after favorable word of Fierro’s 1970s concert performance of the same works reached the composer in New York. And in 1980, Fierro and Copland appeared on the same stage in Los Angeles during a celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday. “His involvement was very encouraging to me,” said Fierro, now 55, who has taught piano at CSUN since 1970. “And it also gave the project a great deal of prestige and publicity.”


Fierro continued his focus on more contemporary composers with his next three albums, three consecutive releases of music by the late-19th-Century American composer Edward MacDowell. But, he said, he felt the need to reacquaint himself with the standard classical piano repertoire, starting with Schubert, Mendelssohn and others before focusing on Beethoven.

“Anybody who loves and plays contemporary music takes on a kind of missionary spirit,” Fierro said. “We need to bring our own excitement to the music in a new way. There is a pleasure in presenting a new work to an audience and selling it, something they didn’t know they would like.

“The challenge in playing the classics, especially the familiar classics, is to demonstrate that these pieces are ever-new, and have something new to say to us.”

In Fierro’s case, that new interpretation may simply be in the energy of his performance, suggested David Aks, music director for the CSUN Symphony. “He’s quite a serious artist,” said Aks, who added that he’s seen some of Fierro’s approach emerge in the playing of some of the students they share. “I think it’s done with a lot of reverence for the music, too. He’s a strong interpreter, but he has a tremendous respect for the composer. That really comes through in his work.


“He’s a very powerful pianist. He brings a very strong approach to the instrument, which I think is very appropriate for Beethoven.”

Fierro said he sees the music as timeless, forever relevant, even as many of the more familiar bits of Beethoven and other composers are commandeered regularly for television commercials. “The music is indestructible.”

“What I like about Beethoven’s music is that it addresses us in so many ways. I find it has a fusion of structure and freedom, to a very high degree. And at the same time it has a gentleness and power, as well as philosophy and humor.”

Beethoven was the son and grandson of German musicians, and emerged to create nine of music history’s most important symphonies and a crowded list of piano and chamber compositions. They spanned a variety of styles and personalities, from the heroic tone of his early work to the darker flavor of his later years, when he finally lost his hearing.


“His music, no matter what character it may be, is always challenging, technically and musically,” said Fierro, who hopes to record a Beethoven album. “And it’s rewarding in every way.”

“Even the most familiar of his pieces always seem to be new in a way,” he said. “They not only transcend their own time, but our own familiarity. They have something directly to say to us.”

Outside of the campus series of Beethoven performances, Fierro often performs with a variety of local ensembles, recently including the Rio Hondo Symphony based near Whittier, the Riverside Symphony and the Ventura County Symphony. Fierro said he plays “where the opportunity comes.”

He’s also enjoyed in recent years support from the California Arts Council and a touring grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that enabled him to perform in California, Kansas and Tennessee in 1986.


And he insists that he has not forgotten the modern works that launched his performing career. In spite of his current Beethoven fascination, Fierro remains strongly committed to the works of modern composers. “There are different kinds of music, and they have different things to say to us,” he said, although he acknowledged the practical impossibility of playing everything he’d like. Between his study of Beethoven and his teaching duties, there is little time for much else, he said. “Life is short and art takes a long time to practice.”

But even now he’s pursuing the score to “Universe” by Gerald Humel, an American composer based in Berlin. “It’s an extraordinary piece of music,” Fierro said of the music he’s determined to perform. “If I get my hands on that score, I’m going to play it, Beethoven or no Beethoven.”


Who: Pianist Charles Fierro, performing works by Beethoven.


Location: Little Theater, Cal State Northridge, 18511 Nordhoff St.

Hours: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Price: $6.50 general, $3.50 students and seniors.

Call: (818) 885-2488.