Back in my high school days, I took a trip with some friends in a giant 1966 Imperial to Magic Mountain, some 75 miles north of Orange County. Partway there, the car broke down on the freeway. We parked it on the side of the road and began walking to get help. We were in Pacoima, a rather forlorn place, just walking through some random neighborhood when we came upon a house with an open garage. A big band was set up there, and they were rehearsing. Kids were playing in the driveway, as if nothing was unusual here. My friends and I were, of course, astonished. I asked one of the kids on a bicycle, “What’s this?”

“It’s jazz, man,” he said. “It’s been around for years.”

It was rather amusing to be sitting in Segerstrom Concert Hall on Saturday night, observing the unsuspecting audience as pianist Marino Formenti unleashed Evan Gardner’s “Variations on a Theme by John Cage” for piano and live electronics. I wanted to say, “It’s avant-garde, man, it’s been around for years,” but an audience like this one (there for a nice pleasant piano recital, in our beautiful new hall, safe to say) really has no basis for understanding a work like Gardner’s. It was a case of a piece intended for a different type of listener (an elite one) meeting an audience of ordinary folk (no offense).

Not that I could make much sense of it either. Gardner’s work (heard here in its U.S. premiere) takes as its theme Cage’s 4’33’’—that is, his famous (or infamous) silent piece for solo piano. A little more explanation than was provided by the program note, and by the composer speaking just before the performance, would have possibly helped. One found it difficult to ascertain under what rules the piece was formed and under what processes the sounds were being produced.

In short, Formenti wore some electronic gloves and didn’t touch the keyboard.

He pressed a pedal down a few times, but he didn’t otherwise come in contact with the piano. A microphone (I take it) somehow picked up sounds (there being no such thing as absolute silence, the program note told us) and fed them into an Apple laptop sitting on top of the piano. Therein, it was submitted to a “feedback loop” and amplified, thereby producing a series of sounds including high ringing tones, oceanic whirls, drum-like rhythms, aspirations from a scuba tank, beeps from a hospital ward (on steroids), etc. Formenti seemed to be controlling their shapes and durations with his gloves, which he deployed in expert karate-chop fashion.

The piece seemed harmless enough, if a little too loud at times. I’ve heard worse. The audience barely clapped when it was over, and some booed (a rarity in O.C.). Both sides got what they wanted: The composer and pianist a sense of wounded superiority, the audience a feeling of having spotted a naked emperor.

The Italian pianist, celebrated for his performances of contemporary music, opened with George Benjamin’s “Shadowlines: 6 Canonic Preludes for Piano,” little atonal character pieces that tended towards rhythmic knottiness and harmonic consonance without settling there. Formenti seemed to probe its mystery and drama well enough, but it didn’t make much of an impression. Perhaps it’s not an ideal piece to open a concert with.

After intermission, Formenti came on stage looking every bit the hostile, tortured artist, and he didn’t acknowledge the applause. He laid into Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations with abandon, emphasizing its wildness, its fancy, its insanity.

If one wanted to make the case that Beethoven was a jerk, the “Diabelli” Variations could be Exhibit A. In them, the composer seems to be sending up and showing up Diabelli’s inane little waltz melody that provides the theme and exulting in his own genius. “Look what I can do with this stupid tune,” Beethoven says, “resistance is futile.” Don’t get me wrong; I duly bow before the “Diabelli” Variations, it’s a great piece (and you don’t need me to say it). But Formenti’s fierce performance emphasized this Beethoven-as-jerk aspect of the work.

It worked for a while. Formenti pulled us along with sheer energy, exuberance, aggression and huge contrasts. But the playing was sloppy, perhaps not decisively so, but noticeably so. Even worse, it was muddy, his left hand often obliterating what his right hand was doing. His interpretation ran out of gas near the end, he (and us) having nowhere to go. Formenti had already played as wildly as he could, and as softly and mysteriously as he could. A man’s got to know his limitations.

photo: Gyula Fodor

Other reviews: Mark Swed, CK Dexter Haven, Out West Arts