Denk Headlines a New Festival, Music on the Strait

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Ives, Ravel, Dvořák: Jeremy Denk (piano), James Garlick (violin), Elisa Barston (violin), Ani Aznavoorian (cello), Richard O’Neill (viola). Maier Hall and Holy Trinity Church, Port Angeles, WA. 31.8.2018-1.9.2018. (ZC)

Jeremy Denk (piano) and musicians (c) Tim Brye

31 August
Beethoven – Variations on ‘Rule Britannia,’ WoO 79
Brahms – Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op.9
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E, Op.109
Schumann – Fantasie in C, Op.17

1 September
Ives – Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano
Ravel – Sonata for Violin and Cello
Dvořák – Piano Quintet in A, Op.81

By design, chamber music is intended for small spaces. It is the ultimate expression of a close-quarters musical experience. Yet far too often the special intimacy it offers is overwhelmed by venues that dilute its populist potential. In an inaugural run over Labor Day weekend, Music on the Strait, a festival in Port Angeles, Washington, restored egalitarian trappings to the genre by bringing world-class artists to the Olympic Peninsula—a part of the Evergreen State that is overlooked as a cultural terminus because of its blue-collar history.

Music on the Strait was the brainchild of two local musicians who are still ascending in their careers. Violinist James Garlick plays in the Minnesota Orchestra, and Richard O’Neill plays with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Garlick and O’Neill were raised on the Peninsula, and this year brought their artistry back home through this festival. Over the course of three summer nights, O’Neill and Garlick performed alongside cellist Ani Aznavoorian, violinist Elisa Barston and philosopher pianist Jeremy Denk, who served as anchor.

Denk was the festival’s featured artist, performing each evening, and on the second night gave a challenging solo recital in the 140-seat Maier Hall at Peninsula College. His program drew deeply from the theme and variation repertoire for keyboard. But in typical fashion, Denk dove deeper, elevating pieces that were in some way personal statements and reflections on other composers. After a brief, bright Variations on “Rule Britannia” by Beethoven, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.30 took the spotlight for the first half. The Brahms work takes the audience through sixteen variations of the primary theme, the Albumblatt. Each turn of the theme revisits Schumann through a unique lens. There is the principal material—the Schumannesque counterpoint, for example, dominates four of the variations—and more abstract allusions abound elsewhere. Denk offered firm control, and brought attention to every aspect of Brahms’ deliberate craftsmanship.

Denk’s mastery of this Beethoven sonata grows with each performance, which he had featured in a Seattle recital last year. This time was darker, drawing out the shadows and contrasting them with its bright moments. The final movement, a theme and variations, harkens back to the time of J.S. Bach, who masterfully manipulated a simple theme to produce the Goldberg Variations.

After the intermission, Denk returned with a thunderous reading of Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op.17. Like the the first half, the Fantasie is based on someone else’s material—in this case, the source of inspiration is Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. The first movement glittered brilliantly under Denk’s sensitive fingers, with each permutation receiving the pianist’s full attention. The second movement galloped along with tinges of irony, while the third unleashed allusion upon allusion to Beethoven.

Denk surpassed his previous appearances in the Evergreen State, casting shadows and light. Each piece’s conflicted nature—as both entirely original works and reverences to other composers—was brought into focus. The intimate setting made the performance especially memorable. The hall’s relatively small size, acoustics, and the feeling that Denk demonstrated transformed his audience into partners as the evening unfolded.

The third and final night, dubbed the “Grand Finale,” followed these populist themes. Instead of Maier Hall, the audience gathered at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. The musicians paired Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No.2 with Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No.2, and Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. Nestled in a typical, nondescript Port Angeles residential neighborhood, Holy Trinity Church tangibly reflected the works’ “everyday” origins. A lawn mower occasionally buzzed nearby, the muffled ring of a cellphone in the pocket could be heard, and a rickety HVAC system clanged to life on occasion—all illuminated by late summer sun streaming through the church windows, bathing the audience in gentle warmth. As one audience member quipped during intermission, it was a “meta Ives” setting.

In Ives’ sonata, references to hymns and popular songs abound. “Turkey in the Straw” is quickly to be followed by the “Battle Cry of Freedom.” The final movement closes with a play on the hymn “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing.” Ives’ Americana mashup emerged with fervent beauty under the command of Jeremy Denk and James Garlick. With romantic fervor, the duo skillfully knitted together each vestige and fragment from an earlier America.

While Ives built his sonata from American components, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello is music at its most basic—employing two instruments to both eradicate harmony and restore the importance of melody. Ravel’s intricate counterpoint showed Barston and Aznavoorian as good-natured foils. In the first two movements, ideas ricocheted between the two musicians. Aznavoorian’s hearty tone and Barston’s pointedness converged in the third movement, bringing earlier themes together. In the final movement, the instruments diverge again, driving toward a furious conclusion.

The concert and the festival closed with everyone at the altar of Dvořák’s charismatic Piano Quintet No.2, one of the great contributions to the repertoire, matching Brahmsian grandeur with Bohemian lust. The opening melody sang beautifully under Aznavoorian’s bow and Denk’s steady keyboard support, and violist O’Neill announced the second theme. Both passages undergo extensive manipulation, letting the five musicians explore a range of moods, feelings, and colors, while holding onto the essentially bucolic character.

Denk and O’Neill held sway in the second movement, in which nostalgia trickled from the piano and was rebuffed by the viola’s somber response. The cello and violins emerged, placing the movement on more cheerful footing—even if only for a short time. A playful, brief third movement lulled the audience into complacency before the finale. On second violin, Garlick entered the fourth movement’s fray, drawing in his colleagues through the composer’s Bohemian manipulations and contortions, before the quintet slowed down and drifted off.

For a moment, anyone unfamiliar with the work might have wondered if the musicians were too exhausted by Dvořák’s musical gambit to continue. But an eruptive finale quickly dispelled these notions, reaching a delightful conclusion that left the audience dwelling on possible future iterations of this intriguing festival. O’Neill and Garlick are hopefully pondering what they could bring next.

Zach Carstensen

1 thought on “Denk Headlines a New Festival, Music on the Strait”

  1. Those concerts spaces were tiny, making this a rare treat. All five of the players at close quarters were fascinating to closely watch. It would have made great TV, ironically!


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