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His Sphere of Influence

John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

In 1992, new-music diva Joan La Barbara asked Leonard Stein to accompany her in some music by Eric Satie and John Cage. They gave the program that summer at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, and then met Cage and percussionist William Winant for a historic performance in New York.

It was Cage’s last concert appearance before the legendary avant-gardist died. The performance featured the premiere of “Four{+6},” with parts specially created for each performer.

Cage and Stein had known each other since they were both students of Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA in 1935. Cage abandoned serial composition and many Schoenbergian principles early on, while Stein became an authority on the most complicated of modern music. When La Barbara told Cage who was going to be performing with them, Cage responded, “Not the real Leonard Stein?”

“That became a running joke,” Stein recalls. “Later I was meeting Steve Reich for lunch, and he walked in and said, ‘Not the real Leonard Stein?’ There was some kind of notoriety to the music I did.”

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These days the real Leonard Stein--pianist, author, analyst, teacher, impresario and paterfamilias of Los Angeles new music--can be found where he has been since 1964, at home in his aerie in the Hollywood Hills. That is, whenever he is not lecturing, teaching and performing in Europe. With all the attention being paid to Schoenberg in this 50th anniversary year of his death, Stein’s type of notoriety is much in demand.

Not that he has been neglecting the local folks. On Tuesday, he plays all of Schoenberg’s piano music for Piano Spheres, the recital series he inaugurated, not coincidentally, with another complete Schoenberg program on the 120th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1994. On Dec. 1, coincidentally Stein’s 85th birthday, he is the honorary guest of a Schoenberg conference at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, where he also will accompany soprano Jacalyn Kreitzer in the evening concert.

Stein was born in L.A., and he was surrounded by music as a child. He started piano lessons when he was 5, followed by the then very thorough music programs of the public schools, including singing in glee clubs. When his voice changed, he switched to accompanying, which he had been doing already for his flutist brother and violinist sister.

Stein’s interest in the music of Schoenberg and related composers came naturally enough, though unplanned. It all started with people, especially teachers, connecting him to music’s history and its future, aided and abetted by the astonishing influx of European emigres in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Early on came American pianist Richart Buhlig, who brought his ties to the best European teaching tradition to L.A. in the late 1920s.

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“About the age of 14 I took some summer lessons with Richard Buhlig, who was an amazing teacher,” Stein says. “He had studied with [Theodor] Leschitizky and later joined the Busoni circle in Berlin. In 1912, he met Schoenberg and in Berlin played the Opus 11 piano pieces for the first time, so they became good friends.”

Then in the fall of 1934, Schoenberg moved to Los Angeles, escaping the winter in Boston, where he had first settled after leaving Europe and the Nazis behind. The following year he gave lectures at USC and in 1936 accepted a professorship at UCLA.

Stein was with him from the beginning here, as a student at USC and UCLA and as his teaching assistant at UCLA. He would continue to work with the composer until Schoenberg’s death in 1955.

“There was a really good musical atmosphere here with the refugees,” Stein says. “The conductor of the Philharmonic was [German emigre] Otto Klemperer, from 1933 to 1939. So I got a good education just by listening to fine music. And of course, there were all the people who came to town, like Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Percy Grainger, eventually even Horowitz, making his Los Angeles debut.

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“Because of the refugees and people like Buhlig, who had settled in Los Angeles, I got all my education here. I didn’t plan on a career as a pianist by going to the Eastern schools, such as Juilliard or Curtis or Eastman, which back then anyone who wanted to have a career had to do. I just stuck around.”

Sticking around in this case meant close work with not just Schoenberg, but also Stravinsky. Stein received his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1939; his master’s in 1941 and his doctorate from USC in 1965. He served as Schoenberg’s proofreader and sometimes editor on musical and literary manuscripts, and for Stravinsky, he copied the parts for the revision of the Sacrificial Dance from “The Rite of Spring,” submitted to renew the copyright on the piece in 1943.

As for concertizing, Stein is hard put to identify a specific debut--he says he has been playing in public since he was 7. When it comes to playing for Schoenberg, the occasion Stein remembers most fondly was a special 75th birthday concert for the composer in 1949. Stein played in the “Ode to Napoleon” and some songs, and afterward Schoenberg sent him a note saying that he was “very proud of a pupil who plays such difficult music. You are one of my two best students in America.”

“That was my musical experience,” Stein says. “It wasn’t until after Schoenberg died in 1951 that I began to play a great deal of his music, and modern music in general. That was because of the Monday Evening Concerts"--the series that began in 1954 under Lawrence Morton and had its roots in another series, at Peter Yates’ house in Silver Lake, called Evenings on the Roof.

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Stein calls the Yates’ series “a great eye-opener.”

“The first season, 1939-40, I played on a Schoenberg program. I played on that series [and Monday Evening Concerts] many times, not only Schoenberg but modern repertoire generally, and even some Mozart, and Monteverdi. That was [a] wonderful thing, how they would have on the same program with new music the old music that was new to Los Angeles. That broke down when there came along specialists in the old music, creating a division between the old and the new.”

The Monday Evening Concerts connection led to Stein’s selection as the pianist on a groundbreaking recording of the complete works of Anton Webern for CBS in 1954. In the 1960s, Stein began to concertize in Europe a lot. He played Schoenberg, of course, but also gave the premieres of pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen and worked with Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian.

In the 1960s, Stein developed a series of lectures-discussions-concerts called Encounters--first at the old Pasadena Museum, then at CalArts in the 1970s--which brought to Southern California many of the leading European composers, including Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Xenakis, Ligeti and Messiaen, and Americans such as Reich.

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During this period, Stein was also teaching, primarily theory and composition rather than piano. He was on the faculty of Los Angeles City College for many years, and in 1970 composer Mel Powell invited him to join the inaugural music faculty at CalArts. His students, college and private, include composers Lois Vierk and La Monte Young, and 1997 Cliburn Competition winner Jon Nakamatsu--"one of the saner of my students.”

In 1975, Stein became the director of the new Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC and editor of its journal. Schoenberg had been acutely conscious of his place in history, assiduously saving all material pertinent to his life and work. His family preserved everything, and after negotiations, a consortium of institutions, including UCLA and CalArts, opened the institute--complete with a life-size replica of Schoenberg’s studio--on the USC campus. It presented concerts by campus groups and visiting artists, hosted conferences and symposiums, displayed artworks and materials related to Schoenberg, and produced a journal that Stein edited.

“1975 to 1991,” Stein muses. “It went by like a blur. We put on many interesting programs in that small space. It was a great period.”

Still, when Stein left, the handwriting was on the wall. The fit between USC and the Schoenberg Institute wasn’t a solid one, and a few years later the Schoenberg heirs pulled the collection and sent it off to Vienna, amid local consternation and finger-pointing.

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“The university was very nice, but somehow we didn’t cohere,” Stein says. “We were an orphan, not really part of the music department. We were always competing for funds, on campus and off.

“I think it was inevitable that it could no longer sustain itself. The Schoenbergs were probably right to move it to Vienna, although they were reluctant to do so. They got a good offer from the Austrian government. It has been very successful over there.”

Distance has not severed Stein’s connection with the Schoenberg Institute. He travels to Austria regularly to teach piano master classes. “I get a big kick out of this,” he says, “that they call me to go to Vienna or Salzburg to teach students how to play Schoenberg.

“That’s about the only teaching I do now. Occasionally a pianist like Robert Thies, who is playing the Schoenberg Piano Concerto in Mexico for the first time, comes to me for some coaching.”

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The great work of the 1990s for Stein has been Piano Spheres, a sort of recitalists’ collective launched as a joint effort in 1994. Besides Stein, the other pianists involved are Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svrcek, all more than a generation his junior.

“I think we started something new with our Piano Spheres. I decided that there were enough good young pianists--younger than me, anyway--to start such a series. It turned out to be rather unusual, since many of the pianists played a great deal of modern music.

“I play mostly the masters of the 20th century, and the other pianists play the real new music. I think it’s a nice mix, because by now, Schoenberg is an old master. Schoenberg told me that in his lifetime he had already been buried twice, meaning that there were periods when he was in vogue and periods when he was forgotten.”

“As a pianist, Leonard is very pragmatic, somebody who goes for the big picture and puts his music in context,” says Robson, who first met Stein at USC, when he gave a recital at the Schoenberg Institute as a graduate student. “It’s a funny metaphor, but I think of Leonard as the Wizard of Oz, someone who tells you to go out and get the broomstick from the witch. He is someone who encourages people to flesh out things that they come up with themselves.”

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Stein, who has handled most of the administrative work on the series, has also been fiscally pragmatic, Robson says, building for a future that may include guest artists and commissions.

“I thought of it as just a small enterprise so I could continue playing,” Stein says. “At first, it was just a cooperative venture. Now, fortunately or unfortunately, we have a board of directors, although I still have to do all the dirty work.”

Which does not leave a lot of time for other projects. Some are expected, such as editing Schoenberg material and the correspondence between Morton and Boulez. More surprising perhaps are watching baseball on TV--"I don’t go out to the games here because the fans don’t know the game. All they want to do is eat and make the wave"--and enjoying fine wine.

“I hope Piano Spheres continues and grows,” Stein says, “but I don’t want to make predictions because nothing lasts forever. But I am going to let somebody else take the responsibility. All I want to do is play.”

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Leonard Stein, with Susan Svrcek, Piano Spheres, Tuesday, 8 p.m., Neighborhood Church, 310 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. (323) 851-2965. $15-$20.

Also, Schoenberg conference, Dec. 1: Symposia, 2 and 4:30 p.m; concert, 8 p.m. Villa Aurora, 520 Paseo Miramar, Pacific Palisades. Free but reservations required, (310) 454-4231.


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