Music matches context this past Sunday

Jeremy Denk. Photo credit: New York Times.

The experience of listening to music — recorded or otherwise — is impacted by countless external forces. And for me, the surrounding context of hearing music is as important as the music itself. Years ago a close friend of my family fell ill. At the time, no one knew this person’s days were limited; their final moments counted in hours instead of years. However, after a bedside vigil, I drove home to Des Moines in my nearly new Saturn Sedan. For these long trips I usually brought a stack of CD’s to keep me company. Without any real reason, I brought along my recording of Bach’s cello suites.

With the picture of my ailing loved one still fresh in my mind, Bach’s suites, which never struck me as spiritual or religious statements, assumed a gravity fitting of that sensory moment. To this day, I have thought Bach’s suites would be perfect music to die to.

This experience — fitting music to context — has been repeated many times over the years. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is forever connected in my mind with a bad date I had in Iowa City. Love and life, both fickle and fleeting, must be embraced firmly and more often than not bravely.

After an arduous spring in my other life, summer has offered little in the way of relief. Yet, Toby Saks marks 30 years this summer as the artistic head of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and I knew I needed to get down to Nordstrom Recital Hall to hear at least one concert. Over the last three decades, Toby has built the festival from nothing to an anticipated summer music event. The familial charm, group dinners, and close relationships with the musicians have endured during the festival’s growth and expansion. Toby will continue to nurture these elements of the festival even as James Ehnes takes over as artistic director.

At the core of the Chamber Music Society’s Sunday evening concert was the intellectual pianism of Jeremy Denk. One of Toby’s enduring musical finds; Jeremy’s career has grown with each passing year. There are few musicians today who can match Denk’s rigorous study and approach to music making. There is nothing routine about a Denk performance, which is exemplified perfectly by the solo repertory in which he excels. The hallmarks of his solo repertory these days are the piano sonatas of Charles Ives. He has recorded both for his own label. Up next for Denk are Gyorgy Ligeti’s three books of piano etudes.

Ligeti’s etudes are among the most difficult solo piano pieces written in the later part of the last century. They are also among the most sumptuous and evocative short statements for the keyboard since Debussy’s own etudes. Even as Denk made Ligeti’s etudes sing, pervasive anxiety rippled through each of the short works as an undercurrent pushed, pulled, and influenced each etude. Denk’s performance successfully captured the uniform anxiety of the etudes, while it also crafted an individual point of view for each.

Denk disappeared for Vincent d’Indy’s Piano Quartet. Unlike Ligeti’s etudes, this quartet soared with the rich melodies of German symphonism mashed with French Romanticism. Lead by festival veterans Bion Tsang (cello) and Richard O’Neill (viola) the performance was successful at turning a forgettable piece of music into a perfect frame for the uncharacteristic drabness of my own emotions this past Sunday.

For the remainder of the first half of the program Denk was joined by local clarinetist Sean Osborne, violinist Erin Keefe, and cellist Godfried Hoogeveen for two works that showcased the Clarinet — Charles Ives’ Largo and Johannes Brahms Clarinet Trio. Erin Keefe and Jeremy Denk made sure the Largo’s long, arching structure unfolded with natural grace. Nordstrom’s troublesome acoustics for pianos were controlled to the very end of the piece which ended with Erin Keefe’s own gentle portrayal of the piece’s final melody.

Following Ives’ short work was Brahms’ Clarinet Trio. Denk again held sway at the keyboard while Osborne commanded the clarinet part. Hoogeveen brought his own old-world charm to this trio which is not as familiar as the composer’s other three for piano, violin, and cello. The trio’s melancholic underpinnings were brought to the forefront by Osborne and helped along by the emotionally brittle warmth of Hoogeveen’s playing. The evening concluded with a performance of Beethoven’s masterpiece the Archduke Trio. Amy Schwartz Moretti, Edward Arron, Alon Goldstein took the lead.

With context as important as the music itself, this concert had it all. Ligeti’s etudes mirrored Seattle’s frenetic caffeine addled culture complete with its vulnerability and devotion to big ideas. Ives’s Largo depicted through sound the melancholy beauty of the Pacific Northwest on that Sunday. My own emotions found outlets in both Brahms’s Trio and d’Indy’s Piano Quartet. As for Beethoven, his music is so nearly perfect as to transcend time and place. Beethoven’s music is often ideal no matter the context. As one patron said via a Facebook status update: “sometimes I wonder if we actually need any other composers.”

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2 thoughts on “Music matches context this past Sunday

  1. Great article Zach… as for your friend on Facebook, Beethoven is the reason we need other composers. He gives us a bar to jump over. Personally, if I get one piece over that bar, I can die happily while listening to the Bach cello suites.

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