Contemporary Music

Summer Retrospective: Timo Andres and (via stream) Conor Hanick at PS 21: Andres, Copland, Rzewski, and Ustvolskaya

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Timo Andres. Photo Michael Wilson.
Timo Andres. Photo Michael Wilson.

From PS21’s Modern Music Fest

August 21, 7pm
Timo Andres, piano

Timo Andres – “Old Ground”
Aaron Copland – Piano Sonata
Frederic Rzewski – “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”

August 29th, 7pm
Conor Hanick, piano
Galina Ustvolskaya – The Six Piano Sonatas

Let’s now return to more hopeful times during the summer with further—and concluding—reports on PS21’s Modern Music Fest by Larry Wallach on concerts by violinist Miranda Cuckson and composer-piano virtuoso Conrad Tao and myself on a recital by another, no less virtuosic composer-pianist, Timo Andres. I am unaware of any other organization to have offered professionally presented, socially-distanced live music in the Hudson Valley or Berkshires during the summer season, and that in itself was most welcome. But, beyond that, the Modern Music Fest, organized by PS 21’s Artistic Director, Elena Siyanko, only weeks before it opened, to replace an ambitious program of visitors from abroad which was planned last year, long before anyone thought of Covid-19. Most impressive were the coherence and focus of the programming, as well as the level of musicianship among the performing artists, all of whom hailed from New York City. As we all know, New Yorkers were not entirely occupied with surviving a readily spread and often lethal microbial threat, but hostility from the federal executive, an equally dangerous disease threatening the basic rights of not just themselves but of all American citizens. Mr. Andres and Mr. Tao, as well as the leadership of PS21 were energetically participating in movements which, have, from this retrospective point in time, have preserved the right to vote and have reminded Americans of their duty to vote, so far. These urgent concerns brought them together while they were pursuing their daily lives under these radically altered circumstances, including the planning and rehearsal of the music that brought us all together in Chatham.

I should also mention pianist Conor Hanick, an energetic champion of contemporary music, who played Galina Ustvolskaya’s Six Piano Sonatas, spare, concentrated works, which can all be traversed within a little over an hour. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend that, but, like the other concerts, it can still be enjoyed in a Facebook stream. From that, it appeared to me that Mr. Hanick led us with deep respect and total concentration into Ustvolskaya’s hermetically private world, in which her dialogues between the two hands, whether as bare contrapuntal lines or dissonant clusters playing both together and against one another. I can’t remember hearing music which so obsessively excluded the presence of an audience in its conception, but the occasion and Hanick’s playing—which I only experienced via streaming, I must emphasize—seemed an especially telling presentation, although the event could be theorized as oxymoronic in nature, given the music’s inherent privacy.

I was present for Timo Andres’ strong performances of two works from a recital intended to be his Carnegie Hall debut, unfortunately scheduled for soon after the cancellation of public events in the spring. He did manage to recoup the lost exposure, however, with a YouTube video, warmly praised in an article, richly illustrated with photographs of the artist in isolation, in the New York Times. The program has also appeared on a Nonesuch CD, in which some of the works are played by Jeremy Denk, Brad Mehldau, and Randy Newman. On this evening at PS21, Mr. Andres substituted his “Old Ground” for “Wise Words,” featured in the spring program.

He saved his spoken introduction for the middle of the program, immediately preceding the final piece, Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” which requires an explanation, since it, like many of Rzewski’s works, because there is a story behind it, as there is in his Thirty-six Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” which capped off the festival in the closing concert on September 4th, reviewed here by Larry Wallach. These pieces go to the opposite extreme from Ustvolskaya’s solitariness in creating a feeling of solidarity with a crowd of fellow protesters through the language of jazz and blues. Rzewski wrote his “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” with its sophisticated construction and virtuosic piano writing, around a retexted version of “The Alcoholic Blues,” sung in the 1930s by workers at a Winnsboro, South Carolina, textile plant as a song of protest and solidarity. Rzewski’s “People United,” as variations on a powerful, widely sung and loved, song written by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún for supporters of Salvador Allende. I was happy to accept both without irony as music of protest and solidarity for our small group, who gathered at PS21 to hear this music, which, to many of the people it celebrates, would seem esoteric, even abstruse. But Frederic Rzewski has the gift of writing complex, sophisticated music with special rewards for audiences who know western art music well, which is nonetheless artlessly accessible at first listen. I’m only too glad, if concerts of “serious” music can serve some social purpose.

Timo Andres began his absorbing talk by thanking the audience for coming to hear the “dour American music” he had chosen to play. His own “Old Ground” was especially in tune with this vein, with its commanding, even threatening opening chords, followed by an expectant ostinato which goes through many transformations of color and mood, often light and dreamy, other times, melancholy and yearning, and much else, growing in grandeur, but not without a troubled undercurrent, towards its conclusion with chords which recall the opening, but in a solemn, even tragic spirit, dominated by a tonal minor mode.

Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata (1942), one of the pillars of the modern American piano literature, begins with a similar series of commanding, dissonant chords, which, like much of the music in the work, both outward and inward, loud and soft, floats in an often recurring state of ambiguity, apprehension, and angst, but instead of the simple, linear repetition of varied motifs, they lead into a fully developed movement in classical sonata form. Jazz-like dotted rhythms and syncopations appear in the energetic development section and in the fast second movement. The third and final movement is a slow elegy, both melancholic and questioning, built around a series of chords that recall the introduction to the first movement. Greats like William Kapell and Leon Fleisher included the Piano Sonata in their repertory, and it is truly astonishing to hear Kappell’s insights above all. Mr. Andres approached the sonata as a unit in the triptych he had created for his hour-long program. Beyond the leftist political views Andres and Rzewski share with Copland across a spread of almost eighty years, musical motifs like chords and ostinato passages matched elements of his own composition and Rzewski’s. Emotionally, he responded to Copland’s yearning for a better world through inclusiveness and the pain he felt in struggling for it in a world where the opposition is strong. Andres’ impressive, always musical virtuosity made him the master of each work.

I can only express my gratitude to Ms. Siyanko for giving these important younger musical voices an opportunity to play before an audience in programs which allowed them to share their admirable musicianship, temperament, and values in repertory which truly needs to be heard more often, especially in our musically conservative region. It was wonderful that the concerts took place at all in the middle of the pandemic, but it was more than wonderful that the programming, quality of the playing, and significance of what they meant, placed PS21’s 2020 season in the rare category of artistic enterprises which go beyond the immediate pleasures (Brecht described them as “culinary”) they provide.

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