Evening all Afternoon:  A Chilly Season Warmed by Capital Region Classical at Union College

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Messiaen, Beethoven, Benjamin and Sweelink, November 24, 2019

American Modern Opera Company performing Aucoin, Ives, Berg, Schubert, January 26, 2020

Paul Appleby, Tenor , Miranda Cuckson, violin, Coleman Itzkoff, cello, Conor Hanick, piano

Jeremy Denk presenting the Well Tempered Clavier Book I of J.S. Bach., February 9, 2020

Derek Delaney, Artistic Director of the Union College Concerts, has dovetailed the 2019-2020 season with the newly christened “Capital Region Classical at Union College,” an independent non-profit organization that aims at a broader stroke of curation in the Albany, Schenectady, Troy region.  Mr. Delaney’s exacting standards in selection and musical management augment his already impressive academic achievements at Juilliard and Yale,  He’s also loved by the loyal fans and patrons of the Union College Concert Series for his compelling mix of old and new, celebrity and newcomer.  

With the dreariest seasons of late fall and winter fading away, those days Wallace Stevens described as being “evening all afternoon,” a few Union offerings I attended were enough to nourish the soul to spring in which  Beethoven’s Semiquincentennial will be celebrated.

In November, an avian mix of Beethoven and Messiaen featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard also included works by Jan Sweelinck and George Benjamin. In a brief talk, Mr. Aimard explained how older classical structures find their way into modern music, and conversely, how modernist foreshadowings can be present in the traditional canon. 

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo Julia Wesely.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo Julia Wesely

At the outset, Mr. Aimard treated us to a  risky programming experiment:  Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (Op. 27, No. 2, C-sharp Minor) sandwiched seamlessly between two of Messiaen’s daunting bird evocations chosen from Catalogue d’oiseaux. The two specimens were placed such that the familiar sonata was a nocturnal centerpiece between a radically different musical world.  But there were unexpected connections. The ponderous and pendulous bass notes in the L’Alouette Lulu (The Woodlark) which acted as a ritornello to the crisp treble calls provide an ineluctable prelude to the Moonlight’s most famous and eloquent first movement.  I was amazed how the sonata’s bass line seemed as an extension of the Messiaen.  The treble phrases, as well, with dotted and hemiola-infused rhythms had an unexpected mimicry.  After the furies of Beethoven’s Presto agitato, we returned without pause to La chouette houlotte (Tawny Owl). This final segue allowed the agitated pulse of Beethoven to scatter into the disordered night-world of clamorous owls. Mr. Aimard largely succeeded in melding the three works into one polystylistic whole.

The Fantasia Cromatica is Sweelinck’s famous contrapuntal and figurative masterpiece which provided a context for George Benjamin’s own chromatic and contrapuntal piece, Shadowlines, written specially for Mr. Aimard. The ear bending renaissance music of Sweelinck served as a path to Mr. Benjamin’s rigorous and ascetic formalism

Finally, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A Major (Op. 101) concluded the afternoon.  It was, in its own way, a summation of the evening’s combinatorial experiments of rapture, counterpoint, contrast, rhythmic thrills, with some much needed good humor.  

The audience at Union seemed to appreciate Mr. Aimard’s masterly performance and experimental vision.  One attendee I spoke with felt the Moonlight was the best he had heard. The opening movement, for sure, is a sort of pianistic benchmark.  Fortunately, Messiaen’s Catalogue has some of his most sonorously appealing music.  Benjamin’s cerebral work, clearly articulating a tradition from the past, had less immediate appeal, but motivated me to find the score and listen again.

Pianist Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk’s mounting of the complete Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC-I) on February 9th is the first of a WTC-I world tour that Mr. Denk will be presenting.

Book I is more familiar than Book II and is considerably shorter to play in one evening. Some might think that two and one half hours of Bach (with intermission) is too hefty a dose of these “instructional” pieces by the master.  In fact, the afternoon cruised by. Mr. Denk’s total committal to this music and ensuring that the audience could hear the intricate and playful contrapuntal inner-workings kept everyone wide-eyed, wrapt, and in some cases, humming along.  

Today, Bach’s keyboard works are unabashedly performed on the modern grand piano and dozens of today’s pianists are tugging at the traditional shibboleths of “proper” Bach style.  Mr. Denk’s approach is more akin to this newer, lightweight approach to  Bach and contrasts both with early music HIP styles as well as, say, Barenboim’s emotive but full-figured approach.  

The case for each prelude and fugue was argued with lucidity and musicality; the musical essence of each work prevailed.  Enchantment abounded, and Mr. Denk never drew undue attention to his formidable technique as mere virtuosic show. A few highlights are worth mentioning: the A Major fugue, a work full of syncopation, hemiola, and great fun, was performed with great panache.  The D Sharp Minor prelude and fugue were a staggeringly dramatic pair, first with great solemn pomp, then with a sinewy, melancholic contrapuntal exegesis.  The A Minor prelude and fugue, sometimes criticized, was given new vigor and conviction.  

Both halves of the WTC-I end with chromatic fugues that test the tunings of “well tempered” keyboards of Bach’s time, but, as well, the sensibilities of an era that in another generation would seek far simpler and less complicated fare.

Mr. Denk’s performance ranked as one of the finest I’ve heard. It was a testament to his musical maturity and honesty of approach. Those seeking a more romantic or a post modern approach might have been disappointed, but there are few interpretations that match Mr. Denk’s good sense.

Clockwise: Paul Appleby, tenor, Coleman Itzkoff, cello, Miranda Cuckson, violin, Conor Hanick, piano

It might seem a bit cheeky to call both James Merrill and Charles Ives “Connecticut Yankees,” considering the gulf between Ives’s yawping Whitmanesque outbursts and Merrill’s crystalline prosodic formalism and witty precision.  Their lives overlapped; Ives was a successful businessman (like Merrill’s father), and both allowed the blare of daily life to be a point of inspiration.  Of course, they both lived in Connecticut.  They can be triangulated by Hartford resident Wallace Stevens, who knew Merrill, and was an insurance man like Ives, his contemporary.  

Matthew Aucoin is a young composer who rightfully laments the way Merrill’s poetry has slipped away from the canon in spite of being well-published and critically supported by academics like John Hollander and Harold Bloom.  Mr. Aucoin has written a cycle of songs from Merrill’s work.  His musical treatment is granite-like and Ivesian which seems at times a sharp contrast to the diction and style of Merrill’s verse. In spite of this, Mr. Aucoin’s word painting was clearly perceived as commentary to Merrill.  In “A Downward Look,” for example, he cleverly set references to highs, lows  and evocations of space, time, and extension.  A “Sonnet from Sandover” evoked an intense recollection of Merrill’s dying father, devoid of sentimentality, and quietly reflected on Merrill’s own mortality.  The experimental , “An Upward Look,” with the witty half lines, illustrating salt and crystal dispelling in isolation, was an effective end piece to this song suite.  Ive’s stalwart and muscular Piano Trio sporting “This Scherzo Is A Joke” centerpiece, a heavy-handed quodlibet, provided the needed physicality that Merrill’s poetry avoided. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Alban Berg and Franz Schubert, a mix of kindred Austrian sensibilities.  The four selections from Sieben frühe Lieder (arranged for violin and piano) showed the influence of Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Beautiful progressions, dark and luxuriant use of a pentatonic palette, were delicately realized by Miranda Cuckson and Conor Hanick.  Following this were the remarkable Altenberg-Lieder, some of the most colorful vocal works of the early twentieth-century.  Tenor Paul Appleby, was in fine form.  He concluded the evening with four haunting selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang.  

This solemn music heard in such a solemn season gave pause and existential reflection.  Not one composer’s style really blended with the others, yet the juxtapositions seemed quite satisfactory. However, I missed hearing one of Ives’s songs, since his vocal contributions, eccentric and far less introspective as they may be, might have sought a transcendence above the human condition. 

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