By William Albright
HOUSTON – Winner in 1999 of the first CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the 30-year-old producing organization Da Camera is known internationally for innovative concerts combining music, literature, art, theater, and dance. An ideal collaborator in such an enterprise is the pianist and author Jeremy Denk, winner of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation grant for “engaging listeners and readers in a deeper appreciation of classical music through unmatched musical ability paired with an unusual eloquence with words.”
Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw (educated at Harvard, polished at New England Conservatory) have been touring with the four Ives sonatas for violin and piano, complemented by a vocal quartet offering seven of the 18th– and 19th-century songs and hymns that Ives wove so creatively into these scores a century ago. Da Camera presented this exhilarating program in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ Zilkha Hall on Jan. 23.
A brainy pianist in the tradition of the great Charles Rosen, Denk has been smitten with Ives’ music since he heard some of it in a music appreciation class at age 17. He performed both of the composer’s numbered piano sonatas for Da Camera in 2011 and has recorded them on (what else?) the Think Denk Media label. He and Jackiw are planning to record the violin sonatas for Nonesuch Records.
Starting with the charming 10-minute fourth sonata, subtitled “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” the works were performed here in reverse numerical order and, Denk warned jocularly, ascending level of difficulty. (He made brief, engaging remarks before each piece.) In fact, after playing just a bit of the admittedly thorny first sonata with Ives in the composer’s home, a noted violinist of the time declared, “This cannot be played. It is awful. It is not music, it makes no sense,” and fled the room with “I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears.”
Idyllic memories of Ives’ childhood in Danbury, Conn., anchor much of his music. The sounds of marching bands, church services, revival meetings, barn dances, seasons, community sings – all of them are intriguingly recalled, distilled, and transformed in his violin sonatas. Denk told the audience that the effect is often akin to “Hymns meet Miles Davis.” In the second sonata’s “In the Barn” movement, he said the feeling is as much roadhouse as barn dance as the music careens into ragtime and other genres popular when the works were written (1900‒17).
Chaos is the organizing principle of the sonatas, Denk said with a grin, but he and Jackiw expertly and sensitively wove the music’s prickly strands into coherent, often silky fabrics. The tricky, shifting rhythms were deftly juggled, the volcanic, slashing eruptions packed plenty of punch, and the singing lines (the evocations of hymns and popular tunes provide many such) unspooled with gossamer sweetness. Indeed, the pair’s virtuosity made these demanding scores rooted in raptly remembered childhood sound like child’s play.
Denk and Jackiw will recruit a male vocal quartet in every lucky city they visit on their tour. Here, the foursome — tenors L. Wayne Ashley and Jeffrey Ragsdale, basses Patrick Schneider and Joshua Wilson — were members of the Houston Chamber Choir. They harmonized a cappella in “Beulah Land” and “I Need Thee Every Hour” before the third sonata, at 30 minutes the longest of the series. “Autumn” (“Mighty God, While Angels Bless Thee”) preceded the second sonata after intermission, and the craggy first sonata followed “Shining Shore” (“My Days Are Gliding Swiftly By”), “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The Boys Are Marching,” “The Old Oaken Bucket,” and “Work, for the Night Is Coming.” The arrangements were drawn from those devised for chorus by veteran operatic and movie soundtrack bass Wilbur Pauley. Sometimes closing them with a reverent “Amen,” in a wonderful touch the foursome pretended to sing them all from old hymnals.
The Houston Symphony will conclude its four-year survey of all four Ives symphonies next season, and Denk and Jackiw have now come to town with the violin sonatas. Is it possible that Ives’ highly personal, astonishingly forward-looking music is experiencing a renaissance hereabouts? Can I get an “Amen”?
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.