Italy has produced great pianists like Busoni, Michelangeli, and Pollini.  Its current pianist in the running for that distinction, Marino Formenti, even hails from Pollini’s hometown, Milan, where he was born in October 1965. Formenti has been dubbed ” a Glenn Gould for the 21st century ” by The LA TIMES’ Mark Swed, which probably refers to his Gould-like obsessive-compulsive absorption in the music he performs, as well as the widely divergent composers he programs.  These traits were certainly center stage in the last of 3 San Francisco Piano Trips programs — the first consisted of Kurtag and 17 other composers — he gave at the De Young Museum’s Koret Auditorium in Golden Gate Park. Would that the museum were beautiful, to say nothing of site specific. Instead its bland forbidding facade sits shopping mall generic — one half expects to see a banner saying “SALE” on it — and its interior has a funny model home smell as if nobody ever lived there or would want to.

Fortunately the Koret is another story entirely. It’s a commodious 269 capacity steeply raked theater, with seats that flip up snugly when you or your neighbor needs to get by. And even better news is that Formenti’s program there, Nothing Is Real — Music for The Present and The Future — was theatrical and worked.

Formenti entered as if from a trap door stage left, clad head to toe in avant garde black, then sat down at the Hamburg Steinway to play Matthias Pintscher’s Monumento — In Memoriam Arthur Rimbaud (1990). The 36 year-old German has apparently been embraced by both the musical right and left, and judged from the evidence of this piece alone, it’s not hard to see why. Here’s a sensitive artist who’s fashioned a work with a wide, though never showy, dynamic range, with beautiful, expressive harmonies, and a firm and probably uncalculated sense of space and line. Formenti’s performance was pellucid and powerful. Next came Music for Piano and Amplified Vessels (1991 ), by the American, Alvin Lucier ( 1931 — ), which sounded like a short, spare lament. This was followed by 2 offerings by Helmut Lachenmann (1935 –), Wiegenmusik (1963), and Guero (1970), which were far more extreme, but less interesting than the previous pieces, yet just as well played. Formenti made a strong case for Hommage a Ligeti, for two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart (1985), by Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas (1953-), which he played, arms outstretched, between 2 grands, as both hands went up and down the keyboard incrementally. Ligeti has rarely been a charrming composer, and Haas’ “hommage” lacked that quality in spades. But what it did have going for it was an obsessive focus on conjoined and opposed sonorities, though Glass has explored these things more fully and more interestingly in Music in Similar Motion (1969), and the seminal, rarely heard Music with Changing Parts (1970). Quarte-tones give Arabic music much of its expressive power, and some Western composers who’ve used them, like Alex North, in parts of his film scores like CLEOPATRA (1963), and UNDER THE VOLCANO (1984), have done so with wit and point.

The 3 succeeding pieces by Galina Ustwolskaya (1919 –), Sonatas # 5 (1986), and 6 (1988), and Perduto in una Citta D’Acque  (Lost in a City of Water) ” (1991), by the newly famous Salvatore Sciarrino (1947 –) , were colorful, and Ustwolskaya’s # 5 even seemed to quote Bartok’s 1936  Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Formenti also played Cage’s 1958 Music Walk, and his setting and resetting of radios of vastly different sizes, makes, and hues, was amusing, and focussed the ear on sounds we wouldn’t normally give full attention to. Sciarrino was represented again by Notturno Crudele No. 2 (Cruel Nocturne) (2000) , a stylisitc and coloristic tour de force, and Lucier, once more, by Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) (2000), which was lyric quiet personified. It also brought into very sharp focus the sometimes ahistorical nature of the school stemming from Cage, where everything, as in American life as a whole, has to be now, or next, while the European pieces Formenti played here showed how our neighbors across the pond are as preoccupied as ever with the weight of their histories.

Formenti, who looks like an Italian character actor, has a strong presence, formidable technique — both conventional and extended — and some pieces required him to use his fists, the flat of his hand, or his forearms. His fierce devotion to whatever enters his musical orbit impressed big time. Musicians, and especially pianists, with this breadth, and passion are rare. His audience here listened hard, and responded with grateful applause.

6 thoughts on “An Italian in San Francisco”
  1. Mr McDonagh, having visited repeatedly, and again last Saturday, I will respectfully disagree with your opinion that the new San Francisco de Young Museum building, by Herzog and Meuron, is not beautiful. I will even more strongly disagree with you that the building — like the new “sustainable” Rienzo Piano California Academy of Sciences now being built across the historic, newly restored Music Concourse from the de Young — is not “site specific.” Nor have I ever encountered the “funny model home smell” you report experiencing. (I do believe, however, that the commissioned Gerhard Richter’s “Strontium” large painting, for the atrium, doesn’t do the museum much justice — especially in that the building was designed, largely, to celebrate Ancient and Modern American Sculpture, Painting, and Crafts, as well as Oceanic, New Guinean, and African Arts.)

    I will now assume that you are not looking forward to Herzog and Meuron’s new concert hall — in the historic shipping/commercial district of Hamburg, Germany:


    I was sad to have missed Mr Formenti’s Wednesday mixed recital in San Francisco (and thus I especially enjoyed your musical review and the comments above), but I did catch another Italian Cultural Institute sponsored concert that Wednesday noon — violinist Graeme Jennings performing Berio, Donatoni, and Sciarrino, at Hertz Hall, Berkeley. As you are in the San Francisco area, I assume, I hope that you might be interested in reviewing, here, some of Mr Jennings contemporary classical recitals, given that he is now based in S.F.

  2. “Quarte-tones give Arabic music much of its expressive power, and some Western composers who’ve used them, like Alex North, in parts of his film scores like CLEOPATRA (1963), and UNDER THE VOLCANO (1984), have done so with wit and point.”

    There is actually a lot of debate and skepticism about whether quarter-tones (or a 24 tone equal tone temperment) is the actual underlying tuning in Arabic music. Furthermore the actual interval of the quarter-tone is never actually stated melodically or harmonically in Arabic music or in the ways that Haas or many other Western composers use them.

    In Europe and most of the Western world quarter-tones are actually used much more commonly as a refined level of quantization than as an allusion to the expressive power of Arabic music. Composers often use this higher level of quantization to more closely approximate patterns and auditory illusions or frequential harmonies and synthetic timbres. The former of these two approaches is Haas clearly what does in his “Hommage à Ligeti” (Ligeti being another composer who strongly loved patterns and auditory illusions such as the ones obsessively explored in “Continuum.”)

  3. I second Mr. Lin above – late Ligeti is supremely “charming” – though part of the problem here is that word, “charming”; what does it mean exactly? I personally find a lot of even early Ligeti charming, including Aventures and others of his “crazy clockwork” – style works. But is there anything more charming than sheer beauty, and anything more beautiful than Ligeti’s Requiem? What is the point, in any case, of all of the Alex North references? After all, he composed nothing on the program, and has only a passing connection to Ligeti, a composer himself not actually played on the concert. Seems a bit like sour grapes somewhere…
    I’m also a bit confused by your characterization of Sciarrino as “newly famous” – he’s been widely played (especially in Europe, to be sure, but in the US as well) for at least twenty years now…

  4. What about late Ligeti?
    The piano etudes? The concertos? The late songs?
    Of course you’re talking about the Haas piece, which was composed before most of the late works, but still…

  5. Well maybe Clocks and Clouds, but certainly not Ligeti stuff Kubrick chose for 2001, which Alex North wrote original score for. “Running ” North’s original score with his cue, Trip to the Moon, is worlds apart from certainly not charming Ligeti Kubrick used for this sequence. Genius and / or great talent is not incomptabile with charm — vide Ellington, Virgil Thomson, Glass, Bowles, and yes North. Is Ligeti’s Aventures, Requiem, or Lux Aeterna charming? But North’s score for 2001 is; and — it’s deep. Hope you might be interested in reading my piece on North’s 2001 scre. — Reviews — Heart and Soul… all tx all best M

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