Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Marino Formenti

This past Saturday evening I was torn between 2 concerts: Bach's B-minor Mass performed in Berkeley by the Netherlands Bach Ensemble vs. the last installment of Marino Formenti's modern music recitals, "The San Francisco Piano Trips". These were obviously going to be very different experiences. I opted for Formenti, & it was quite a show, as much performance art as classical music recital.

It was held in the Koret Auditorium of the de Young Museum. I hadn't been there before. It's a very comfortable space below ground level. It probably holds around 400, has stadium-style seating & very wide seats. The performing area is on the same level as the 1st row of seats, so there is no elevated stage.

It was a very high-tech set-up. At one side of the stage a piano was surrounded by a half dozen or so portable radios. At the other side of the stage was a piano surrounded by jars & vases of various sizes, shapes & materials. Each had a microphone suspended inside it. Center stage were 2 pianos with the keyboards placed at 90 degrees to one another. The pianos were miked, & wires ran all around the floor.

At the start of the recital Formenti came out, looking serious & slightly sheepish, acknowledged the audience, & barely sat down before I heard a loud, sharply attacked chord. I wasn't prepared, & it was so startling I jumped in my seat. He had my attention for the rest of the recital.

I got to witness a lot of wild piano techniques. Each piece had its own peculiar technical challenges. Formenti often had to move abruptly between intensely loud & extremely soft. He made the jars sound by striking notes on the piano that caused them to resonate sympathetically. He taped small microphones to his index fingers & played the piano not by depressing the keys but by running his fingers rapidly over the keys, creating clattering glissandos. He played 2 pianos at the same time. He played exhausting passages of tone clusters with his fists & forearms. The John Cage piece, among other stunts, calls on the performer to the play the piano with a hammer!

The program had a lot of variety. It was clear that every piece had at least 1 interesting idea that was being explored. & it always felt like it was music, even during the Cage piece, when Formenti was scanning radio stations or striking the inside of the piano with a hammer. In fact, I'm still thinking about this Cage piece.

Of the 9 composers on the program, the only name I recognized was John Cage. Because the repertoire was so completely new to me, I felt like I couldn't really judge whether these were good interpretations or not, even though I liked Formenti's performance very much. I wish there were more opportunities to hear programs like this.

Marino Formenti spoke to me! During the intermission many of us in the audience milled around the stage, examining the score on the piano & checking out the electronic set-up. The stage crew were having a job keeping people from going behind the pianos. At one point I looked around the back of a piano & discovered a stand with a small Chinese teapot with a wire going into the spout. All of a sudden Formenti was in front of me pretending to cover the teapot with his hands & saying "You discovered my secret!" I was too startled to respond. Formenti should be pleased to know that when he revealed the teapot's role at the recital's finale, it was still a surprise.

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