Time seemed to stand still, a reflection of Jeremy Denk and Stefan Jackiw’s astonishing polish — they understand the music of Charles Ives deeply.
By Susan Miron
The chance to hear pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw (presented by Celebrity Series at NEC’s Jordan Hall) perform all four Charles Ives violin sonatas drew a large audience, roughly the size that might have taken flight if there had been a surprise announcement that Ives was going to be the main attraction. A horde of local musical celebrities were on hand for this Modernist extravaganza, many of whose connection with Jackiw goes back decades. People whose children had gone to high school or college with Jackiw were there; other performers who had recorded these sonatas were there, as well. Jackiw’s parents were there. Many were in attendance to cheer on the Hometown Boy made good, really good.
The duo performed this program with an excellent all-male vocal quartet, Hudson Shad, who sang hymns that appear the sonatas shortly before the pieces were played. This was a wonderful idea: it gave us a sense of what Ives was listening to in his head while it inspired our imaginations. These songs included “Beulah Land,” “I Need thee Every Hour,” “Autumn” (“Mighty God, While Angels Bless Thee”), “Tramp, Tramp! Tramp! The Boys are Marching,” Shining Shore,” “The Old Oaken Bucket,” and “For Song (Work for the Night is Coming”).
I must admit to being, before this concert, not a fan of Ives. After listening to these four sonatas on You Tube I felt that I had heard enough, Would I be able to muster up the patience to hear all of them again? What I learned is that there is nothing like hearing — and seeing — electrifying performers work their magic in person. This was a top-notch duo performing at the top of its game, who knew and loved Ives (Denk has recorded Ives’ two piano sonatas); they have obviously given serious thought to what was behind — and in — the music. They are well aware of the challenge: the range of compositional devices Ives used — polytonality, atonality, complex multi-rhythms, tone clusters, twelve-tone rows, metrical modulation, and microtonality — disturbed or bewildered nearly all of his contemporaries. In addition, his extremely difficult instrumental writing did not endear itself to conventional musicians. The composer was frustrated by indifferent audiences and ambivalent critics throughout his career.
In the spirit of Ives’ compositions, this was not your usual violin recital! The duo played the sonatas in reverse chronological order. Denk would helpfully introduce the piece and then Hudson Shad would sing. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Jackiw explained that, for him “the biggest challenge in unlocking these pieces was finding the right sound world. As violinists, we spend so much of our time refining our sound, but [this music asks us to] capture the fiddle music, the ‘unschooled earnestness’ of hymn tunes. It was really a different way of playing for me…. What unlocked all of this for me was reading something Ives remembered his father saying when they encountered a stonemason singing off-key. His father said, ‘Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds, for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.'”
In his four violin sonatas, as in much of his music, Ives drew on scraps of hymns, popular songs, ragtime, band tunes, patriotic songs, and ballads of nineteenth-century America, compositions familiar from his youth in Danbury, Connecticut. He placed these tunes into his own original blend of traditional and non-traditional harmonies, “wrong-note” dissonances, clusters, and very free counterpoint. The sonatas are groupings of a number of individual violin and piano movements Ives worked on from 1906 to 1919. All four sonatas are conceived in a three-movement form and each ends with a large-scale coda based on a hymn tune, played by the violin in altered form. The conclusions to the sonatas in Friday night’s performances were frequently breathtaking. Time seemed to stand still, a reflection of the duo’s astonishing polish — they understand Ives deeply, and and communicate his artistic vision via their poise, eloquence, and skill with color.
MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Denk is famous for his highly articulate blog. In program notes he wrote for the duo’s Ives concert at Stanford yesterday, Denk wrote that “Ives, to a fault, hated to do things the ‘normal’ way. He loved to turn everything on its head, backwards or upside down. A ‘normal’ composer would start with some tune and then begin to do developments or variations, letting you as listener perceive ‘something is happening to the tune (which I recognize).’ But Ives loves to start with variations and improvisations, gradually giving way to the tune at the end, so that you only understand the piece in retrospect. That poses unique challenges for the performer and the listener, obviously. One thing you have to do when you play Ives is try to untangle what is an improvisation on what: that is, to get in Ives’ head a little bit. Pretend you’re a madman genius riffing on a hymn or a ragtime — then, hopefully, maybe, you as the audience can understand the whole thing too, the way the hymns are constantly being changed, made funnier or more solemn, shifted into various personalities and styles — all setting up a final epiphany. The pacing to these climaxes is crucial. When Ives finally lets the hymn loose, it has to feel like a discovery.”
And Denk and Jackiw’s concert was indeed a stupendous discovery — an eye-, mind-, and ear-opener. When the duo records these sonatas I recommend a consciousness-raising listen for all.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.