Mark Gresham | 30 SEP 2021
The intimate Spivey Hall opened its 2021-22 season on Sunday with a recital by pianist Jeremy Denk. Not a recital on streamed video recital but performed before a live audience inside the hall.
The gathered audience, limited to half of the hall’s 400+ seat capacity, experienced reasonable rather than draconian pandemic safety measures. The upper and lower exhibited well-marked social distancing in what would generally be heavily trafficked areas. Staff wore masks, and patrons courteously wore masks, although not required.
Spivey Hall is not allowed to have mandates for masks, vaccinations, or COVID-negative tests because located on the campus of Clayton State University, part of the University System of Georgia. In this case, the State’s trust in the public (at least this particular cross-section of the population) played out very well. The entire experience felt perfectly safe.
Denk opened Sunday’s live concert with the Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 829, of J.S. Bach. Denk seems to have a natural affinity for Bach. There is great clarity in his playing, which seems built from the small details upward. His tempos are on target without feeling rigid; a slight elasticity in his performance exists that is just enough to mark critical structural elements. The music exudes joy and light.
Schubert’s Impromptus, D.935, also had a certain clarity, although they do wend and weave their way through more of a kaleidoscope of moods. Coherence and diversity are not mutually exclusive. Denk balanced the elements.
Speaking of diversity, a suite of four pieces that Denk gathered together to begin the concert’s second half was the most intriguing part of the program. It started with a work by African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), “They will not lend me a child” (Op. 59, No. 4). It is an adaptation of an East African folk song (Swahili: “A Ba Boleki Nwana!”) — a childless mother’s lament. Coleridge-Taylor treats the melody with dignity within its Europeanized context.
Denk then turned to two very different African-American works. First, The Battle of Manassas, by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908). Wiggins re-creates the famous Civil War battle (and Confederate victory) with sonically descriptive musical episodes, interpolations of popular patriotic tunes of the day (Dixie, Yankee Doodle, Le Marseillaise, and The Star-Spangled Banner), and spoken word. While more of a music-hall novelty, it was in great demand from Wiggins in his concerts. It also foreshadows the iconoclastic-patriotic music of Charles Edward Ives (1874 – 1954) and makes creative use of the piano. It is difficult to imagine that Ives would not have heard Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas at some time in the early decades of his life.
Even before the din of war had entirely faded, Denk segued into the wildly contrasting civility of Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and Louis Chauvin (1881-1908). A collaborative work, the first two sections are likely by Chauvin, with structural elements and harmonies that are unusual for ragtime. The latter sections are in Joplin’s more familiar style.
The last number in the set is a leap forward into the proletarianism of the next century. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues by Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) is an astonishing piece of expressionist post-minimalism. It uses the full power of a grand piano in its exploration of the dignity of blue-collar labor as well as its physical, emotional, and economic difficulties and despair. Whether in this version for solo piano that Denk played here or the version for two pianos, like Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas, it evokes a literal soundscape: the droning machinery of the mill or the sounds of the attendant locomotives, offset against a contrasting, lyrically bluesy tune in the middle.
Rzewski died at the end of June this year, at age 83.
Denk rounded out his program with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, the composer’s final statement in the genre.
The remarkable architecture of the first movement (“Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato”), with its fugal textures, was a dynamic edifice of impassioned expression. In the second movement (“Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile), a simple rhythmic idea develops into a complex, majestic tapestry in the course of the five variations. Strangely, it sounds to the contemporary ear like it’s presaging the energetic rhythms of boogie-woogie or bebop. Denk built it to a transcendent climax to end the concert.
The encore was in great contrast:” J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C major from The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, was elegant in its quiet, utter simplicity. ■