Remarkable Denk, and a Welcome Infusion of Jazz

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (8): Bill Frisell (guitar), Festival Orchestra, Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano), Robert Spano (conductor), Jeremy Denk (piano). Harris Recital Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 21-23.7.2014 (HS)

Film: “The Great Flood,” 21 July
Harris Hall
Bill Frisell, guitar
Ron Miles, trumpet
Tony Scherr, electric bass and guitar
Kenny Wolleson, drums and vibraphone

Recital, 22 July
Harris Hall
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano
Robert Spano, conductor
Schoenberg: Verklârte Nacht
Martin: Der Cornet

Recital, 23 July
Harris Hall
Jeremy Denk, piano
J.S. Bach: “Goldberg Variations”
Ives: “Concord” Sonata

Running alongside the Aspen Music Festival’s “New Romantics” theme for this season, which focuses on modern works in a relatively accessible style, is a stealth addition—“Unabashedly Atonal.” The program describes this repertoire as “often written off as obscure, impenetrable, unpleasant, or simply noise.”  Musicians could argue over the definition but the classical music audience often uses it to mean something like “harshly dissonant.”

Three atonal examples were in this week’s concerts. The only one that qualified as “unpleasant” was a piece for a stage full of basses, piano and a giant box struck with a rubber hammer. Bassists Edgar Meyer and Bruce Bansby were overqualified to play this assault on the ears, the incessant pounding relieved only by a few seconds here and there of soft harmonies.

Other than that, there was nothing particularly scary about Ives’ “Concord” Sonata in the hands of Jeremy Denk, a pianist surely incomparable in this music. A longtime Ives champion, he showed zero fear in drawing out the individual lines and harmonies. Often these are gnarly, but they always ultimately resolve harmonically into something approaching balm.

He opened his remarkable recital Wednesday in Harris Hall with this 45-minute work, corralling Ives’ rambunctious musical portraits of authors he admired in the Concord transcendental school (Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, Thoreau) into a narrative that made perfect sense. He reveled in the sometimes cacophonous exuberance, which only made the long stretches of quieter harmonies sound like a jazz pianist improvising transitions between songs.

As if that weren’t enough, Denk turned to J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in the second half. He wasted no time keying up the energy, even playing the opening “aria” with a strong forward pulse that still left room for subtleties. The first several of the 30 variations kicked off at a crack tempo, but the interpretations became ever more detailed and expansive as he worked his way through them. He moved from one to the next with hardly a pause. If some of the more florid passages sometimes splattered rather than spinning out cleanly, I often found myself catching my breath at his rhythmic spring, deft phrasing and effective use of dynamics. After all that, the return to the limpid expression of the “aria” was like pulling a boat from high seas into harbor.

The musical language of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Martin’s Der Cornet, heard Tuesday in Harris Hall, strikes most ears as lush and rich. The Schoenberg piece pushes chromatic harmonies to the edge, much like Wagner or Richard Strauss, but strikes most as a precursor to, rather than example of, atonality. The sextet led by violinist David Halen emphasized clarity and a modicum of delicacy—if anything too refined. It could have used more sweep leading to the emotional peaks.

The Martin song cycle, because of its rarity, is the sort of piece a summer-long music festival can earn credibility presenting. But it’s not all that challenging. Martin invested most of his colorful writing in the resolutely tonal writing for the 34-piece orchestra, which delivered expressively under conductor Robert Spano’s baton. Mezzo-soprano Monica Groop found about as much emotional richness as there is in the meandering vocal line by focusing on the poet Rilke’s evocative text. She was a pleasure to listen to.

Monday the Music Festival presented Bill Morrison’s extraordinary 2011 film, The Great Flood, with live music provided by the jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell. Before the performance Asadour Santourian, the festival’s artistic advisor, took a shot at explaining why jazz is included in a classical festival—never mind how many non-jazz artists populate jazz festivals these days. In the end, the issue need not be about categorizing music but recognizing quality where it exists.

Besides, Frisell’s classical credentials are not exactly lacking. He collaborated with the soprano Renée Fleming on her jazz recording a few years back. His most recent project, “Big Sur,” is on Sony Classical.

Anyone with a classical musician’s ear could hear how seamlessly Frisell applies principles of classical music composition to the jazz idiom in his score. This film examines the Mississippi River flood of 1927, a critical event in American history in large part because it spurred the migration of rural southern African-Americans to northern cities, bringing with them their music and culture. Frisell’s score opens and closes with a jazz-inflected rendering of “Ol’ Man River,” the Jerome Kern anthem from Show Boat, cannily using elements of the song as springboards for his own pieces.

Each of those accompanies a chapter in Morrison’s film, which blends archival black-and-white footage of the flood itself with shots of cultural life along the Mississippi River—from Louisiana and Alabama to Illinois—where the migration (traced artfully on vivid maps) led to Chicago blues and eventually, in Detroit, rhythm and blues. Work song informs chapters showing African-Americans sharecropping and doing the monotonous task of unloading cotton on docks. Up-tempo dance music brings a smile in a rapid-fire trip through the Sears catalog, which aptly reflects the popular culture of the times. Languid jazz ballads accompany mesmerizing scenes of rising flood waters, trees and houses dotting the vast landscape, and people rowing through it. A rather jaunty number comments wryly on the smiling, three-piece-suited politicians surveying the damage.

In performance, Frisell and his three musical collaborators, most notably the achingly beautiful sound of Ron Miles on trumpet (actually looked more like a cornet), were so evocative they would have been a delight to hear on their own. But with the film, they were magic.

Harvey Steiman

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