Next year brings us the 50th anniversary of the demise of one of the 20th century's most important composers -- born Paul Hindemith -- who became an American citizen after fleeing Hitler. Over his 68-year life, he wrote nearly a dozen operas-collaborating with everyone from Bertoldt Brecht to Thornton Wilder. But he's best known for his amazing range of orchestral, chamber and piano music.
And Charles Fierro, a 74-year-old Los Angeles virtuoso pianist who happens also to be an emeritus professor of music at CSUN, is going to do his best to make sure this great, demanding and ultimately melodious composer gets his due--and remembrance.
"I first heard Hindemith's music when I was a student at USC," Fierro recalls. "It was the Wind Quintet. It was love at first sight; I got to the score right away."
"Shortly after that, I came across the Ludus Tonalis at the library and immediately purchased a copy, which I use to this day. Indeed, at my very first recital, I played some pieces from it." So he's been living with this great work for 50 years. But in some ways, only now is he truly coming to terms with it.
Fierro still regrets that he did not get to meet Hindemith before his death in Switzerland in 1963.
Ludus Tonalis can fairly be called the 20th Century's equivalent of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Written in 1942, 21 years before the composer's death, it is, Fierro maintains, the summit of Hindemith's piano music. It consists of 12 fugues, connected by interludes rather than Bach's preludes. Each interlude provides a tonal transition to the next, via some surprising quotes from classical greats -- not to mention, to my ears, an apparent steal from the US Marine's Hymn utterly appropriate for the year of its origin, when America was fighting for its life in the Pacific. Accessible and yet challenging, delectable while difficult, the piece plays for under an hour. But it contains a complete and compact universe of modern piano music. Yet sometimes it is positively sprightly -- its name meaning "Game of Tonalities."
Fierro says, ''I long played ten pieces from it at recitals, and now, finally, am playing the whole thing five times this year.'' On September 22, he'll be playing it at Calstate Northridge's Cypress Hall Recital Auditorium at 7:30 PM. (Tickets are very cheap, from $5-$10.)
In his mid-70s, Fierro says he has "Better energy and better control than ever before." But he does not want to rush into recording Hindemith. Particularly Ludus Tonalis. He wants to be "ready" when he does it on record. Hale and fit for his age, he has long been very serious hiker. It's almost as if he's in training for what could be his life's major musical accomplishment.
Los Angeles-born Fierro's parents were Mexican-Americans, a postal worker and housewife. They early recognized and encouraged their son's talent. During his later studies at USC in the early 1960s, he fell into the hands of some of the most talented music teachers in America: Lilian Steuber, Joanna Grauden, Alice Ehlers, Adel Marcus, and perhaps most importantly, Ingolf Dahl, the prodigiously talented exiled conductor, director, instrumentalist, and composer whose work he has recorded. If the Los Angeles of c.1960 lacked many aspects of high metropolitan culture, it had long been rich in music and classical musicians of the highest caliber -- from Igor Stravinsky to Bruno Walter and beyond.
In this fertile environment, while developing a professor's career at CSUN, Fierro found himself specializing in music of the 20th Century modern style. When he played Arnold Schoenberg's landmark Opus 11 Three Piano Pieces in 1964, to an audience that included Igor Stravinsky and Schoenberg's widow, his fame ignited. His performances and recordings of major American moderns like Aaron Copland have since received great reviews. So have his rediscoveries of the serious major works of America's first important composer, Edward McDowell.
Now the focus is Hindemith. For whom he is also a performer in waiting, ready to move even beyond the composer's solo repertory. "I've played the sonatas for flute and piano and clarinet and piano and would like to perform the Marienleben song cycle and the Quartet for Piano, Violin, Cello and Clarinet. I've learned the Four Temperaments for Piano and String Orchestra and am actively seeking a strong string orchestra with whom to play it."
Meanwhile, in Northridge next weekend you'll have an unusual chance to hear a great pianist play a wonderful, singular and too-rarely heard work.
Lacking a recording of Fierro doing the Hindemith, here's a young pianist, Lukas Geniusastake, with his take on Ludus Tonalis.