When every performance becomes an act of composition | One to one with Marino Formenti, piano ‘pugilist’ extraordinaire

For Culturebot | Date of publication: Wednesday December 10, 2014

It happened while the pianist was playing a work by the American composer Morton Feldman, which runs to about twenty minutes. ‘The shortest of the longer pieces,’ as he had announced it. For me, it was an exciting prospect, as I had never before heard Feldman’s work. Still, about halfway through I started to doze off. I often doze off during live shows. It has nothing to do with age; I am 56 now, but my head started wobbling without warning forty years ago, when I first became a serious theater-goer, and has never ceased to surprise me since. Neither is there any connection with being bored. It happens indiscriminately of my enthusiasm or disappointment. I keep explaining that, dutifully, to my companions at live shows, and, quite understandably, they keep being baffled by it.

Usually, that conversation, and my dozing off, play out at a safe distance from the performing artist who could be bothered, distracted, or insulted by my unwanted, unintended but seemingly unavoidable behaviour. On the umpteenth row of seats during the show, and in the foyer afterwards. With the pianist, it was different. This time, there were no companions. It was just him and me, and I was dozing off at the corner of the piano’s keyboard. My wobbling head could have landed on his right thigh, or on one of the bass keys. When it finally jolted upward to stay there, the first thing I noticed was the smile on his face, teasing and triumphant at the same time. Uh-oh, I thought.

Ever since I first saw the programme of the 2014 edition of the Austrian festival Steirischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn), I kept coming back to the same item: One to One, by Marino Formenti. It promised a private piano recital for one visitor at a time. Apart from live theater, I have been an ardent lover of classical music all my life. However, there is a significant difference between the two loves. With theater, I become more eager every year. There is so much exciting stuff to see, I want to be evermore everywhere at the same time.

But with music? My last visit to the Concertgebouw in my native Amsterdam, one of the world’s most renowned concert halls, happened years ago, when Maxim Vengerov played there. At the time, Vengerov was considered the world’s best violinist. Maybe he still is. I was bored to death by his performance – and stayed wide awake through all of it. To my ears, Vengerov’s play was too perfect. Too slick, too manicured. During my formative years, I had learned to love musicians like Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, Claudio Arrau, Glenn Gould, Jacqueline du Pré, Michael Rabin, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kathy Berberian. They did not stop at being virtuoso technicians. They were strong performing characters, imbuing their live and recorded music with their personalities.

Of course, that is just the view of one individual. But it is safe to say that live classical music has a general problem, whatever the private hang-ups. The audience is graying, except for baroque or Old Music. Eighty to ninety percent of the music performed is more than a century old. In concert halls, the rituals, the do’s and don’t’s, are much more ingrained than in theater. I will never forget an evening of chamber music in the same Concertgebouw, even more years ago, long before my encounter with Maxim Vengerov. To my astonishment, most members of the audience held in their laps heavily annotated sheet music of the programmed works, apparently checking whether the performers stuck to the correct notes. And, I suspect, to their very particular idea of how it should be performed.

Whatever happened to the simple love for music? To the attitude of just going there, and listening, with a clear and open mind, leaving all that ballast with your coat in the cloakroom? I don’t know the answer, but I have been acutely aware of the problem of live classical music for many years. A huge part of it rests with musicians who are simply content to continue the calcified tradition of practice.

Marino Formenti must be one of the very few who is not. It took me a while before I realised I had seen him before: in September 2011 in Rotterdam, during a performance of Gólgotha Picnic, an extraordinary show by Rodrigo García from Argentina. Gólgotha Picnic is a baroque and yet multimedia critique of religious fervour in general and Catholicism in particular, mixing ancient metaphors with modern references like Sharon Stone’s infamous ‘leg cross’ in the film Basic Instinct. The picnic ends with a piano transcription of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, originally composed as an orchestral work. In García’s show, it was performed by Marino Formenti.

Stark naked, and deeply serious, without a hint of farce.

This particular Haydn work runs to more than fifty minutes. That is how long Formenti sat on his piano stool, on his bare butt. I remember I shivered in his place while watching him, and listening, totally transfixed. (And again: no, I didn’t fall asleep.)

I simply had to see this guy again.

Formenti grew up in northern Italy, the economic powerhouse of a country more commonly known for its cavalier attitude to working life. The Italians from the north are industrious, ambitious, materialistic, and politically conservative. Marino’s father was the town’s photographer, a mere servant, really, of the many rich families in the region. He did well because they did, not the other way around. His son was very conscious of this social subtext, and became a young rebel in a conformist environment. His father wanted him to study something respectable, like law. Marino responded by playing in a rock band and by coming out as gay. He had to fight to carve out his own place in the world, but he seems to revel in fights, up to this very day.

His website is all white and minimalist. Open it, and you will hear a few dreamy notes from some contemporary piano work. In the flesh, however, Formenti radiates energy and enthusiasm, on and off stage. He is constantly moving about, and then suddenly focuses like a laser. Sometimes he will attack the keyboard with his whole forearm, and produce a richly varied sound that betrays years of hard practice. It is easy to see why various critics of his performances came up with metaphors rare in classical music, like ‘heavy lifting’, ‘philosophical pugilist’ and ‘middleweight prizefighter’. He is equally familiar with Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven as he is with György Kurtág, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, and Feldman’s fellow American Lou Harrison. He combines ‘classic classical’ concerts and recitals with highly personal and adventurous performances.

And he knows no fear. He regularly performs works generally considered unplayable, like Jean Barraqué’s Piano Sonata. According to Alan Rich of Muse News, who interviewed Formenti in May 2002, the Italian plays Barraqué’s ‘Great White Shark of contemporary music … in about half the time other pianists require – fast but complete and amazingly clear’. That same month, during the 56th Ojai Festival in California, Rich saw him perform ‘simultaneously (!) on two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart’, as well as ‘a marathon piano recital, four hours of killer repertory ending after midnight’ with For Bunita Marcus, another Feldman piece running to eighty non-stop minutes. Formenti’s love affair with contemporary music began the very day he first sat down in front of a piano. ‘I banged down on some notes – some chords, actually – and then I immediately wrote them down on paper,’ he told Rich. ‘Playing the piano and composing have always, for me, been the same thing.’

Gyula Fodor
© Gyula Fodor


There are two sides to playing, he went on to explain. The one is the technical aspect. ‘Once you learn the notes of the piece, they are always there for you – in your fingers and in the rest of your body – and they don’t really change.’ The second is the spiritual aspect. ‘This happens when you can look past the notes and find the personality of the composer – Beethoven, Schubert, Feldman, anybody. That person is never the same from one day to the next, and I am never the same person from one day to the next either. From that standpoint, every performance becomes an act of composition.’

Formenti played with the New York, Munich, and Los Angeles Philharmonics and many other distinguished orchestras, under famous conductors like Kent Nagano, Gustavo Dudamel, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and in renowned venues like Milan’s Scala, Berlin’s Konzerthaus and the Musikverein in Vienna, the city he adopted as his hometown. Also, he collaborated with legendary musicians like Gidon Kremer and Maurizio Pollini, and with many of the contemporary composers whose work he plays regularly, such as Kurtág, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Helmut Lachenmann.

In New York, he debuted in 2004 with Piano Trip, a series of three recitals in which he endeavoured to show the links between old and new in ‘classical’ music by playing works from Barraqué, Olivier Messiaen, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, and John Cage, among others. He performed this ‘trip’ in Lincoln Center’s small and intimate Clark Studio Theater. Ten years later, in June of this year, he returned to Lincoln Center with Liszt Inspections, a programme exploring the influence of Franz Liszt on contemporary composers, this time in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. The audience sat at ‘cabaret tables with complementary wine’.

Both performances got glowing reviews in The New York Times. The Clark has 100 seats, the Penthouse 250. In between, in 2010 and 2011, Formenti performed for an audience that was infinite, in theory. Nowhere, with works by Satie, Feldman, Cage, and Klaus Lang, was played during eight days and nights in a public space; Formenti ate and slept there as well. First in the city museum of Graz, the capital of Styria and yearly host town to Steirischer Herbst in the south of Austria. And a year later in Bregenz, in an art gallery. At both venues, the public could come and go as they wished – to listen in for a couple of minutes, or to linger for hours. ‘Nevertheless,’ as the Steirischer Herbst programme puts it, ‘Formenti seemed to be only playing for himself, he was exposed and yet at the same time completely immersed in himself.’

For the 2014 edition of this festival, he came up with an entirely different approach. One to one was staged during fourteen days, an astonishing five to six times per day, lasting two hours per installment. Entrance was free, but the prospective attendees had to come one day before the performance to a local tourist office to pick up their free tickets. This was less easy than it sounds: One to one played in three different small and often quite remote villages outside Graz. Mine was in the 19th century Villa Wickenburg in Bad Gleichenberg, an hour’s travel from Graz by car, and almost two hours by train and bus.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by an assistant. After a short wait in a corridor, I was led into a large reception room. Tall windows on the far side offered generous views of the surrounding park, and drowned the space in mid-day sunlight. The pianist received me cheerfully, sat me down on a couch, poured me a cup of tea and started asking questions, writing down my answers in a notebook. He mainly wanted to know my favourite music. We talked for about an hour before he jumped up and started to play. Our conversation kept veering wildly, from both our family backgrounds to Formenti trying to explain what One to one actually was. ‘A non-performance,’ he called it several times. It was an attempt to establish a more personal and interactive contact between performer and audience, by reducing the latter to just one person at a time.

As such, it only half-worked. I told Formenti in great detail about my musical heroes. But what was he supposed to do with that information? Play like Claudio Arrau, or Sviatoslav Richter? No, of course. Neither did I want him to. I told him I love to be surprised – by restaurant cooks as well as stage performers. His response was to play Morton Feldman, one of his favourites. I loved him for doing that, and I loved Feldman’s piece as well. I will be forever grateful to Formenti for introducing me to Feldman’s work. But truly interactive this introduction was not. Formenti simply, quickly, and conveniently filled the gap that I left with my hesitant answers with a much more informed answer of his own. 

As said before: I could not have minded less. I had a wonderful two hours, talking and listening to, what I gathered to be from the experience, one of the greatest living performers of classical and contemporary music. For the first time in my life, I had a private recital by, and at the same time a very private talk with, an exceptional musician. No, Marino Formenti is not Claudio Arrau or Sviatoslav Richter. No way. But he does play in a strongly personal, idiosyncratic manner, just like them. His repertoire is so vast and varied that it hardly posed a practical limit on One to one. He had schlepped a truckload of sheet music from his own library to his temporary cave in Villa Wickenburg, and yet played many of these works by heart.

His joy and energy while he is at it are highly infectious. For him, no moment of concentration, softly rubbing his hands with eyes closed. He just hits the keys without warning. How could I possibly fall asleep with this guy playing? ‘I kept asking myself,’ he told me afterwards, ‘should I stop or play on?’ Formenti may be a pugilist, but he is not insensitive. I met him near the end of his grueling schedule during Steirischer Herbst, but he showed not a trace of fatigue. That was all the more astonishing because the 48-year old pianist (who also leads a very active career as conductor) had to undergo heart surgery earlier this year. He talked about what must have been a very tough operation with his customary cheer, almost opening his shirt to show me the scars. To his intense amusement, he was interrupted by a tiny spider popping up exactly between us, coming down on his own thread from somewhere on the richly decorated ceiling. ‘Look!,’ he exclaimed, laughing exultantly. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’

Near the end, he played – again, on his own insistence, and who was I to deny him, and myself, this unique opportunity? – a few of his other favourites. Two solo keyboard pieces by Bach. Not Johann Sebastian, but Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann’s fifth child and second son. Nowadays, the son is not nearly as popular as his father. This does him injustice. C.P.E. was a huge musical force in his own right during the 18th century, a total match for J.S. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who admired and performed his works, said of him: ‘He is the father, we are the children.’ Joseph Haydn also considered C.P.E. to be an important source of inspiration.

In his lifetime, the younger Bach was one of the best players of, and composers for, keyboard instruments – then, the clavichord and harpsichord – and a great innovator of the craft of playing them. He wrote a method, Versuch über die wahre Art Klavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments). One of his inventions was to use the thumbs. To this day, the work is still widely in use for teaching and practice. C.P.E.’s production was just as prolific as his father’s. During his Berlin period alone (1738-1768), he wrote nearly 200 sonatas and other solos for keyboard. Also, he ‘applied principles of rhetoric and drama to musical structures’, according to his Wikipedia page, resulting in C.P.E.’s own distinct musical handwriting, known as empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style).

Formenti is a master in bringing out the modern and the innovative from this kind of work – an ability that must have been honed by his habit of performing old and new music cheek to cheek. He made C.P.E.’s notes sound as fresh and daring as they must have 150 years ago. And then, suddenly, our meeting did become interactive – or rather, cooperative. He looked at his watch: only ten minutes left. ‘You want to sing, right?’ I sort of half-nodded. I love to sing, but I also dread it. As a boy, I studied the cello for many years – not to much avail, alas – but I have never had singing lessons. For me, using my own body as an instrument remains an awesome experience, in both the positive and negative sense.

Among my favourites, I had mentioned The Beatles. Formenti suggested we do When I’m Sixty-Four together. And so we did. Butt to neatly-dressed butt on the piano stool, with me singing and him accompanying me. It went very well. Now it was my turn to exult. But Formenti was not yet done with me. After that wonderful moment, he had his little revenge. That teasing and triumphant smile returned. He handed over his guestbook, and made me write five times the following line:

I shall never again fall asleep during a live performance

‘Well done!,’ he said sarcastically, after I had completed my little imposition. We both erupted in laughter. Then we hugged each other warmly, and went our separate ways.

Los Angeles Times
© Los Angeles Times

Joost Ramaer (1958) is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. For fifteen years he worked at de Volkskrant, a leading Dutch daily newspaper, as a staff reporter, first on Economics (1993-2003) and then on the Arts  2003-2008). He left the paper to research and write a book. De Geldpers (The Money Press) tells the sad story of how the publishing company of de Volkskrant and other serious newspapers sold itself to the British private equity investor Apax, and was nearly wrecked in the process. De Geldpers was published in December 2009 by Prometheus in Amsterdam to universal critical acclaim and sold 4,800 copies. Theater is one of Joost’s lifelong passions. During the last two years, he has also made it into a new theater of work.

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