A Magnum of Opuses

John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Ask a 10-year-old what he or she wants to be when grown up and you may get a firmly expressed answer. Few kids, though, would be expected to take action on their choice and probably fewer see it through to realization.

Mari Kodama at that age, however, had little trouble committing to the piano. Music was in her genes, and the piano had been one of the constants of her peripatetic childhood. Her mother had been a concert pianist, and her father worked for Sumitomo Bank. When she was 6, Kodama's family left Japan to follow him to postings in Germany, Switzerland, France and England.

"While my mother was pregnant with me, she was very sick. She gave a poor concert once and then decided to concentrate on teaching. Many students came to the house all day long, and I just assumed that the whole world played piano," Kodama recalls, in L.A. on a short excursion from her current home in the Bay Area. "My parents tell me I wanted to start when I was 2, but they thought that was too young. So I started when I was 3 and learned to read the notes.

"When I was 10, my parents thought that we should decide whether I should go back to Japan and prepare for a good university, or if I should study music in Europe, as a more universal language. I had to ask myself if I could live without the piano--it was clear to me that I could not."

With that settled, Kodama blossomed rapidly. She entered the Paris Conservatory when she was 14. While still a teenager she made the rounds of the European competition circuit, and she made her Japanese debut in 1984 at 17, quickly entering the pantheon of musical heroes there.

Her breakthrough came before she turned 20, with her London debut in 1987, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the London Philharmonic. Composer and critic Anthony Payne reviewed her "astonishing performance" in the Independent. "Prokofiev's more extrovert writing drew a response of physical and emotional commitment . . . [and] there was also a touching delicacy and elegance in quieter moments. Miss Kodama obviously possesses a great range of keyboard colors together with the inner resources to deploy and integrate them on a large canvas--she is altogether a remarkable artist."

A decade later, Kodama is a much-prized member of the younger generation of thoughtful and adventuresome virtuosos, and she is as busy as she cares to be. She began this season on the East Coast, playing Bach and Mozart for the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, and Schoenberg for the Bard Music Festival. In April and May she will tour Japan playing Mozart and Poulenc duo concertos with her younger sister, Momo Kodama.

And here in Los Angeles, beginning a week from Tuesday, she tackles Beethoven--all 32 of the composer's sonatas, in fact. Broken into six programs, the sonata cycle will be presented by Southwest Chamber Music over three seasons.

"I have played many of these sonatas before, of course, but this is the first time that I'm doing them all. It is a big challenge, and very, very intriguing," Kodama says. "Jan Karlin [SCM executive director] had to wait awhile for my programs. I played through all the sonatas, many times in different orders, to hear what combinations would go best, not only on paper but also in sound."

First up, Nov. 30 at Pasadena Presbyterian Church and repeated Dec. 2 at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, are the three sonatas of Opus 10, followed by Opus 78 and then Opus 81a, "Les Adieux." This season's second set follows in mid-December.

"I think it is good to keep the sets, the sonatas of one opus, together, and I knew I wanted to start with Opus 10. I also wanted to find a balance between major and minor keys, and I think I will keep the last sonatas until the last season."

With the cycle spread across three seasons--but always around Southwest's annual Beethoven birthday (Dec. 16) marathon--Kodama realizes that her audience may not carry detailed memories from year to year. But the cycle context has enriched the sonatas for her, and she thinks that hearing even just one of the programs could be special.

"It is different when there is just Beethoven on the program," she says. "He gets more freedom that way, more of his own personality than when matched with others. You can learn an awful lot about Beethoven, how he uses harmony and his phrasing, and how it develops--the early and late sonatas sound almost like the work of different composers."

Beethoven seems to attract the cyclically minded. Though hardly annual events, performances of the complete string quartets are not rare, and we even heard a survey of the nine symphonies from John Eliot Gardiner and his period instrument orchestra last spring at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Kodama remembers that Daniel Barenboim once conducted all of the symphonies and played all of the concertos over a month in Japan.

Her multiyear presentation of the sonatas has an illustrious predecessor, Alfred Brendel. The legendary German pianist seldom takes students, but through a common friend Kodama arranged to play for him shortly after she left the Paris Conservatory. It was supposed to be a one-time event, for one hour, but he and Kodama clicked and she came back again and again. She still sees him several times a year, whenever their schedules permit.

"What Brendel taught me about German music is to relate it to language--you must pronounce every note," Kodama says. "We talk about making music sing, but it also must speak. Diction and drama are essential parts of instrumental music.

"Brendel tells me you must find a balance in everything: balance between brain and heart, balance in harmony, tempos, color. Easy to say, but hard to do!"

Kodama is well aware of stylistic issues. She appreciates the increased understanding of this music that the period-instrument movement has generated, but is rather underwhelmed by the Beethoven-era fortepiano.

"Of course, it is very important to consider the style of the composer, to consider the tradition and the culture from which the music comes," Kodama says. "Otherwise, everything gets to be just your style.

"But you also have to interpret what you feel, pull it all together and make it understandable to the audience. You have to find a balance between style and what you feel, and make it work.

"You have to know the research, but it really is a question of balance, being faithful to the text, to the instrument, to what Beethoven really would have wanted. You have to use common sense. There are more possibilities for this music on a modern instrument, particularly in bigger halls. I think he would agree."

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Kodama herself seems the personification of balance, soft-spoken yet articulate, poised and thoughtful in all things. It is not surprising to discover that her extra-musical interests feature yoga and reading.

Domestic balance is also obviously something needed for a mother of a 1-year-old daughter, and whose husband, conductor Kent Nagano, is also an internationally much-in-demand musician. Motherhood, Kodama suggests, has presented some expected problems to a traveling musician, but also some benefits.

"Because time is scarce, I've found that I concentrate more; my practicing has become more efficient. My mind works better, although I get less sleep. Also, people tell me that I have better sound now, because I have more muscles in my arms from always carrying a baby."

On this trip, the baby, Karin--who is already showing precociously intent musical interest, according to her mom--is at home with family.

Kodama met her husband after her London debut, when she was asked to record the Prokofiev concerto for ASV.

"The record producers had a list of conductors who were then perhaps not so well-known. I went to listen to all of them, and my No. 1 preference to work with, I told them, was Kent Nagano.

"He could not do it just then, however. I was living in Paris, and he was there conducting 'Elektra,' so I went to see him. He said he would like to do it if the scheduling could be arranged, so I told the record company that I would rather wait and do it with him. It is very easy for us to make music together; it is not necessary even to talk."

The record that came of this--Prokofiev's First and Third Piano Concertos, with Nagano conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, plus Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata--was released in 1991 and widely acclaimed. Nagano and Kodama were married the same year.

These days, they rarely concertize together.

"Maybe once a year," Kodama says, "maybe for a tour or a fund-raising project. It gets more and more difficult, figuring out who is going where, where we can meet, who will bring the baby."

Fortunately, Kodama likes to travel; she enjoys change, she says. Geographically, San Francisco remains home base, although the family may be together there only six weeks out of the year.

If home is where the heart is, San Francisco still gets a vote from Kodama, since that is where her daughter was born. Emotionally, she still feels a strong connection to Paris, where she has lived the longest, but she says she finds Berlin, where Nagano will soon take over as music director of German Symphony Orchestra, very exciting right now. Kodama says that the couple have not considered the domestic possibilities of Los Angeles, where Nagano is a widely bruited prospect to become music director of Los Angeles Opera, because there is nothing definite about that position.

Most surprising from such a well-traveled and tested veteran--and such a centered person--is an admission of stage fright.

"No, it's true," she insists. "Every time, before going on I get stage fright. But I can change my mind-set. I try to liberate my mind, to open it to what is going on. There is a space, emotional as well as acoustic, between me and the audience. I have to dominate that space.

"It's not up to me to go to the audience; they must come to me. But if they do, my job is to capture their ears so they can have no other choice than to listen."

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Mari Kodama begins her Beethoven sonata cycle Nov. 30, 8 p.m., Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, and Dec. 2, 8 p.m., Colburn School of Performing Arts, 200 S. Grand Ave. The second program will be performed Dec. 14, 8 p.m., at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church and Dec. 16, 8 p.m., at the Colburn School. $10-$20. For tickets and schedules of future cycle performances: (800) 726-7147.

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