The notion of hosting chamber concerts in a drawing room can evoke all sorts of images, positive and negative, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I found.
The featured performers were the excellent Jonathan Bagg, violist of the Ciompi Quartet, along with Boston-based pianist and Ives scholar Donald Berman. The program included a world premiere, two other pieces from the last ten years, and a set of studies by Charles Ives, one of which was a premiere of sorts.
The audience, about forty people packed into the main room and the two adjoining rooms (listening through the open French doors), was made up of music lovers – as far as I could ascertain, there were only four musicians, including myself.
At the conclusion of the concert, our hostess got up and reminded us of the story of the boy who was told by his emperor to bring him something completely original, something nobody had ever seen before, to which the boy responded by bringing an egg. As the emperor and his court gathered round, the egg hatched, and there it was: something nobody had seen before. “I hope you can all feel that same wonderment this evening, having just heard a piece of music that has never been heard before,” she concluded.
With all the new works I’ve heard in my lifetime, it was truly refreshing and delightful to hear someone with that kind of enthusiasm over a premiere.
The piece in question was by Stephen Jaffe, who, among other things, teaches down the road at Duke University. Four Pieces Quasi Sonata is a fifteen-minutish work, with the form of each movement emerging gracefully from a Classical antecedent without falling into cliché. Jaffe’s language — pointillistic at times, at other times merging viola tone with chiming harmonics inside the piano – combined the instruments’ strengths beautifully. I particularly liked the pensive third movement, a quiet viola cadenza framed by elusive piano chords.
The other two new works were Arthur Levering’s gorgeous Tesserae from 2003 and one of Takemitsu’s last works, A Bird Came Down the Walk, after a poem by Emily Dickinson. The latter was haunting, enigmatic and gently shocking.
Again, one of the Ives studies was a premiere of sorts: Berman has transcribed a recorded improvisation Ives made some 70 years ago. Although Berman has recorded his transcription, the disk is not due out until next year, and we got the first live performance of a surprisingly coherent and unsurprisingly pesky little piece on a very sensitive 8-foot Blüthner piano.
Afterwards, I found myself chatting with a military judge, who told me he had tried very hard to love Ives all his life, but he always ended up disappointed. “Amazing, wonderful ideas,” he said, “but somehow there are very few really transcendent works, from beginning to end.” Agree or not, I was taken aback to find someone outside of the profession with such a nuanced response to Ives’s music. He also talked about how much he appreciates program notes, because he not only wants to enjoy music, he wants to learn something new with each piece.
I gradually discovered that this aesthetic energy was common to everyone in the room, with ages ranging evenly from 30s to 80s, from all walks of life. The whole experience was really inspiring, and it confirmed my oft-repeated credo: I have no interest in large numbers of listeners — I just want listeners who really listen.