On Saturday, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented a recital by one of the most fascinating and challenging of all pianists, Italian-born Marino Formenti. His performances are nothing less than fascinating regardless of their overall success or failure. This is a man who has performed Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ naked on a stage covered with thousands of hamburger buns, among other daring musical feats. And while he didn’t quite go that far in Orange County, he nonetheless presented a show that was intellectually rigorous if not completely easy to swallow by all of those in attendance. The show was structured around Beethoven’s late Diabelli Variations, a collection of 33 variations composed in response to a project proposed by the music publisher of the same name who had solicited variations from a number of contemporaneous composers on a rather pedestrian waltz he had written himself. Beethoven scoffed at the request, but later surprisingly produced one of his greatest works by creating an overabundance of responses, one of the last major works of his life. The work has been lionized over the years and filled with projected rage against the dying of the light, serving as fodder for filmed documentaries and framing devices for deeply serious plays about death starring big Hollywood stars.
But Formenti was having none of this Jane Fonda glossy approach on Saturday. He views the work in much more every-day human terms, seeing the individual variations as being a collection of responses, sometimes mocking and farcical, that Beethoven might have actually had to such a request at the time of the work’s composition. Originally Saturday’s recital was to have included other variations on Diabelli’s waltz that Formenti was to have commissioned; however, they failed to materialize. Formenti kept in the spirit of the project, though, by playing works that were similar in structure and intent. First was George Benjamin’s set of 6 canons for solo piano, Shadow Lines. These short rhythmically complicated bursts segued into Evan Gardner’s Variations on a Theme by John Cage. The young Gardner had cleverly chosen the “theme” from Cage’s silent 4’33” for his work that relied heavily on electronics that was receiving its U.S. Premiere performance. Formenti, seated at the piano, didn’t actually play the instrument but instead followed a series of hand motions while wearing motion sensitive gloves that record the “silence” or ambient noise in the room. This sound is then looped, re-recorded and played through amplifiers resulting in distinct electronic thumps and beeps that arise out of the feedback from the absence of sound.
Gardner’s approach set the groundwork well for the performance of the Beethoven that followed in taking a rather shifting and unfixed notion of variations to inform his music. Like Formenti’s approach to the Diabelli Variations, Gardner takes a more complicated view of a composer's understanding of source material in creating music, which in the case of Beethoven has become ossified as a primary source material over time. It was interesting even when the sound became too unfocused and dissipated in the Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Needless to say, this starting material was not particularly well received by a Saturday night Orange County audience that was expecting comfortable and familiar Beethoven. Many people were restless and noisy even after opening remarks from Gardner and Artistic Director Dean Corey.At times Formenti appeared agitated during the first half of the evening and when he returned for the Beethoven, the crowd was about to find out that his Diabelli Variations would be like none they had heard before. He pounded into the opening waltz before the crowd had even stopped applauding with a churlish and mocking tone, one that would permeate much of the performance. Bounding bass lines crashed over melodic ones often at breakneck speed creating music that at times sounded as contemporary as anything in the first part of the evening. There were moments of calm in this, but any pretty moments were not in abundance confounding the expectations of many in the room. Formenti pointed out some of Beethoven’s mocking disregard for Diabelli’s original source material and suggested the composer was not necessarily looking for high-minded platitudes on the human condition in his work as much as nearly 200 years of history might lead you to believe. It was a bold interpretative choice and one that was fascinating to listen to if not always comforting or readily accessible. Perhaps Formenti was acting out some frustration with the audience by taking an exceptionally oppositional approach this particular evening, but regardless of the mood of the moment, this was not an interpretation meant to be comforting or reassuring in any way. And that in itself was exciting. Formenti lived up to his reputation, delivering something that was thought out and dynamic, even in the most unexpected of musical places.