Review: With a magnificent Piano Spheres recital, Mark Robson resonates in the new year

Mark Robson in his Piano Spheres recital at Redcat on Tuesday night.
Mark Robson in his Piano Spheres recital at Redcat on Tuesday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )
Music Critic

With bells strapped to his fingers and Stockhausen on his piano’s music stand, Mark Robson ceremoniously rang in a new year for the Piano Spheres series at REDCAT on Tuesday night. His right hand, the one wearing bells, was devoted to sending the keyboard’s highest notes into rapid pulsation. The left hand struck bass notes like pealing gongs.

Nature in the form of sound took her course as the virtuoso pianist prompted us to conserve the value we place on the experience of time. An unstoppable news cycle of addictive sensationalism, Twitter and Facebook have become — aided by a cellphone in the pocket, skin-close, at their distracting beck and call — increasingly intent on interrupting thought by the minute.

The Stockhausen score was “Natürliche Dauern,” which translates as “Natural Durations.” The perception of natural durations is essential to how we sense the natural world, and natural durations as represented by resonance was the theme of Robson’s recital.


To resonate is to breathe. Musical instruments become extensions of our breath. Electronic music opens up unsuspected worlds of resonances. In Stockhausen’s music, ear, lung, brain and all sound-making tools and sound-analyzing tools were essential components of a holistically unified spiritual realm. Late in his life, the composer set out to find novel ways to sonically fortify every hour of the day in a work called “Klang” (“Sound”). He died 10 years ago, upon reaching the 21st hour, which he called “Paradise.”

“Natural Durations” is the third hour. It’s composed of 24 piano pieces lasting, this being Stockhausen time, well over two hours. Robson played Nos. 10 (the one with the bells), 23 (a more scientifically complex full keyboard etude) and 5 (a stark study in sonic shards) as part of his annual Piano Spheres recital, which covered an unpredictable range of music.

He resonated through three of Philip Glass’ Twenty Etudes for Piano, which included the early, cheerily Minimalist No. 3, the more melancholic No. 9 and the near-Romantic No. 20. Robson jumped a century by including Ferruccio Busoni’s Sonatina No. 4, a somberly lyric Christmas ode written in 1917 when the desolation of World War II still permeated the Italian composer’s Berlin. Robson also included the world premiere of the first part of a new score by Los Angeles composer Daniel Rothman.

The Busoni was dedicated to the memory of Piano Spheres founder Leonard Stein, a close associate of Arnold Schoenberg during the Viennese composer’s L.A. years. Stein, who died in 2004 and would have been 100 last month, had been a student of L.A. pianist Richard Buhlig, a friend and champion of Busoni.

The lyricism and experimental harmonies of Rothman’s “Tidemarks on Rocky Shores,” part one of his “Manual of Harmonic Analysis and Predictions of Tides,” happened to be closest in tone to Busoni. The new work felt like a barcarole for our precariously warming seas. Feathery phrases, alluring in texture, bobbed and broke apart, more like ominous clouds breaking sunlight than waves breaking on the shore.

The program began with German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s 1975 Klavierstück No. 5 (“Tombeau”), which began with an extravagant bang and went downhill from there. Even so Robson’s unflashy yet monumental technique found unsuspected colors in shades of gray, and simply watching his hands overwhelm the keyboard proved, in itself, enlivening.


The program ended with William Kraft’s “Translucences” from around the same time, 1978, but from the opposite end of the harmonic spectrum. The 93-year old Kraft, who is the dean of Los Angeles composers and was present on Tuesday, thinks of himself as an American Impressionist. “Translucences,” which takes its inspiration from observing light and shadow reflected through a magnolia tree, is in fact a kind of Abstract Impressionism.

The score is musically complex, yet sensations and colors are immediate, harmony somehow resonating with the kinds of vibrations that light also offers. Everything is connected. As Stockhausen never tired of pointing out, sound and light are simply different manifestations of vibrations.

Robson made that connection as well. His Old World virtuoso lack of theatricality, tied to his exacting musicality, is one of the things that makes him special. For this recital, though, he jumped on the visual effects bandwagon increasingly common in recitals. He played in a dark room with just a round spot on him. A shock of illumination occasionally accompanied a shock from the keyboard. Colored lights bled over the stage when chords implied colors.

But nothing was overdone in this magnificent recital. Light carefully illuminated resonance, and resonance mattered as much as it must.


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