Pianist explores ‘Aspects of the Divine’

In the world of classical piano today, there are the greats — such as Martha Argerich, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes — and the barely 20-something stars, such as Yuja Wang and Lang Lang. All are different, all are well-known.

Then there is Marino Formenti, in a class by himself, and not in the headlines. He should be. A unique virtuoso, an “eccentric titan of the keyboard,” he doesn’t care to be called a pianist at all. He considers himself a musician who happens to use the piano as his instrument.

He made his San Francisco Performances debut two years ago with a most unusual concert in the de Young Museum, playing difficult works without separating them — for example, Ives-Bartok-Webern-Bach-Stravinsky-Haydn as all of one piece.

It was a bizarre but wonderful performance, earning accolades of “virtuoso brilliance and seductive intensity.”

Now the Italian-born Austrian resident Formenti — who has another career as an opera conductor — is back with two unusual, challenging piano recitals under the name of “Aspects of the Divine.”

One event Saturday will present Oliver Messiaen’s monumental 1944 “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus” (20 Meditations on the Infant Jesus), a rarely performed, extraordinarily difficult work.

“The older I get,” the pianist says, “the more convinced I am of music’s spiritual aspects.”

He views the Messiaen not only as a gigantic piano work, but as something linked to “Indian tradition … Asian music … Japanese Noh theater, kabuki ritual, with deep Catholicism, pantheism coalescing. Theater and ritual: a hidden opera, requiring intense concentration, a thrilling journey of about two hours without breaks.”

Why no pause or even an intermission? Formenti’s reply: “There is no intermission in the universe.”

The second concert on Dec. 11 is just as unusual. It’s the piano transcription of Haydn’s 1787 “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” usually performed in its original orchestral version, as a choral work or string quartet. Formenti pairs the work with a contemporary response he had commissioned, Bernhard Lang’s “Seven Last Words of Hasan.”

Hasan was a famous Sheikh of Alamut, who became head of the Shiite Arab Hashshashins (assassins) in 1090. The music has to do with “cellular processes, derived in poetic terms from the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.” Yes, Formenti is like no other.

More down to earth, Formenti will also perform at a family matinee the music of Messiaen, inspired by birdsongs. He will announce the program from the stage.

IF YOU GO

Marino Formenti

Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus’
Where: St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $32

Family matinee, music by Messiaen
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $8 to $15

‘Seven Last Words of Christ,’ ‘Monadologie V — Seven Last Words of Hasan’
Where: St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 111 O’Farrell St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 11
Tickets: $32

Contact: (415) 392-2545; www.performances.org

artsentertainmentMarino FormentiOther Arts

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