Ligeti’s Trio for horn, violin, and piano is subtitled “Hommage à Brahms” since it was commissioned, in 1982, as a companion piece to Brahms’ trio for the same instruments. This is a rare instrumental combination owing to radical disparities in color, volume, and methods of tone production that challenge the composer to balance and blend their sounds. It was probably this quality that acted as one of the inspirations for this piece, which marked a turning point in the career of this composer. Ligeti does not consciously emulate Brahms in this work; if anyone, it is Beethoven who serves as a distant presence.
Today many musicians feel it necessary to organize their programs around a theme. Themes can be programmatic (music of spring/summer…, war/peace, food, etc); they can focus on nationality and/or time-period (modern Polish music); a particular characteristic (Maurizio Pollini and the Juilliard Quartet once presented a program of nothing but very short pieces, including Webern’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes); a survey of a certain repertory (e.g. the complete Bartók string quartets); or actual musical themes (music based on “L’homme armé”). In fact almost anything can be made into a ‘theme.’ When all else fails, you can call a program “Music of Sorrow and Joy” (or “Lament and Celebration”—you get the idea). The theory is that a thematic title gives an audience additional food for thought, and perhaps offers cues of what to listen for; it may create a more active role for the normally passive listeners, or it may simply provide a catchy headline.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.
I was not the only member of the Tannery Pond audience who has been following Jeremy Denk’s career with some avidity. He played there a few years ago, accompanying Paula Robison (who preceded Denk this summer) with quite a different group of colleagues. This particular gentleman, however, had heard him elsewhere, in his general concert-going, and, like me, instantly beame a Denkist — or perhaps we should call ourselves Denkonians, to avoid confusion with that particularly odious and venal branch of the medical profession.
My entry into the fold occurred at the Liszt Festival at Bard College, when I heard Mr. Denk perform the Liszt B minor Sonata. (He teaches there.) This seemed to me at the time, although I’ve heard some important pianists perform the work, including some great Lisztian intellectuals, like Kentner and Brendel, to be a supreme statement of the work. (Yes, somehow — most likely due to Liszt’s own exceptional intelligence and the literary culture he had acquired — at least some of his music is intellectual music, although he worked very hard at developing quite a different persona in his earlier career.)