Ives: Violin Sonata No. 4 (Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting)
I Need Thee Every Hour
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 3
Autumn (Mighty God, While Angels Bless Thee)
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 2
Hymns and Songs
Shining Shore (My Days Are Gliding Swiftly By)
Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The Boys Are Marching
The Old Oaken Bucket
Work Song (Work For The Night Is Coming)
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 1
Exactly one week after attending an all-Mozart performance by the Peabody Chamber Orchestra and Leon Fleisher, my friend Paula and I met in Town Hall yesterday at the exact same time and place for another concert of People’s Symphony Concerts’ Salomon series. This time, however, instead of classical Viennese works written by one of the world’s most famous composers, we were in for a concert dedicated to American modernist composer Charles Ives courtesy of his relentless advocate Jeremy Denk, fearless young violinist Stefan Jackiw and the endlessly versatile Hudson Shad vocal quartet.
I have actually gotten to know Ives’ œuvre almost exclusively through Jeremy Denk. This is of course no big surprise as he is probably one of the few musicians around these days with the emotionally understanding, intellectual capacity and technical skills necessary to tackle the music of a man who was so fiercely dedicated to his craft that he did not seem to mind that his uncompromising compositions did not allow him to make a living off them.
On top of it, while one week earlier I had to take the subway both ways to avoid the dreadful winter weather, yesterday afternoon more than made up for it with gorgeous spring weather. So I happily ditched the subway for two very enjoyable walks in a Central Park bursting with people, flowers and, yes, music.
Jeremy Denk is not only known for his virtuosic talent at the keyboard, but also for the informal, witty, and enlightening introductions he gives before his performances. Yesterday, providing a brief biography of Ives, especially pointing out his staunchly avant-garde outlook and obsessive tendency to inject unexpected musical references in his compositions, was in fact very useful to put the pieces in context. Given my background, I was unfortunately not able to play the “search-for-and-name-the-hymn” game, but there was still plenty for me to enjoy regardless.
Proceeding counter-chronologically, which means that, curiously enough, we went from the most accessible to the most esoteric sonatas, we started with the Violin Sonata No. 4, which was his first one to be published, probably because he considered it the strongest one of them all. Inspired by the boys’ summer camp in Brookline Park he attended in his childhood, the score was playful, boisterous and lyrical, each quality being vividly expressed by the power duo of Denk and Jackiw. Complex but readily accessible, the fourth was an ideal starting point.
The longest piece of the afternoon, and incidentally the one he liked the least, Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 3 came out vigorously swinging, especially in the ragtime-flavored second movement. The duo performed it in perfect balance, both strongly expressive without being overbearing, through technical acrobatics, unpredictable dissonances and poetic moments. The rewarding experience almost got ruined though, by an audience who felt compelled, as they sometimes do, to make himself heard by starting to clap as soon as the last note had been played instead of letting it drift away, as it should have. Thanks for nothing.
After intermission, it was time for the Violin Sonata No. 2, which was yet another example of the right combination of nostalgia and modernism with more than a touch of rowdiness. This savory combo was particularly present in the tightly organized chaos of the second movement “In the barn”, the violin’s transformation into a fiddle igniting more than a few chuckles from the audience. After all that earthy fun, the spirituality of the last movement was all the more fervent and poignant.
Allegedly the most experimental sonata of the four, the Violin Sonata No. 1 still had enough traditional elements to make everybody feel at ease, and enough esoteric surprises to resolutely challenge performers and audiences. Inspired by “people’s outdoors gatherings”, the work busily evoked what could go right and wrong in those settings with wild distortions and intense overlapping, and the occasional pristine melodic line.
Getting to hear Ives’ four brilliant violin sonatas preceded by extensive explanations was certainly an unusual treat. To make the whole experience even more edifying, between sonatas the four singers of the Hudson Shad ensemble sang some of the hymns and traditional songs to be found in the following piece in impressive unison. And to make the whole experience even more personal, the audience was invited to join in for the second round of “I Need Thee Every Hour”, which we did very discreetly. Some things are just best left to the pros.