Marilyn Nonken's Saturday evening recital at the Clarice Smith Center was the most courageous and uncompromising program of piano music I've heard in years.
Nonken gave no quarter. She worked hard -- physically and intellectually -- and she demanded a like effort from her listeners. There was much that was beautiful on her program, but nothing that could be described as traditionally "pretty." She began with three recent compositions by Pierre Boulez, Arthur Jarvinen and Chris Dench, then devoted the entire second half of the evening to the Sonata No. 2 ("Concord") by Charles Ives.
Pianist Marilyn Nonken, brilliant at Clarice Smith.
Let's start with the Ives, for Nonken's performance came as a revelation. It is easy to poke fun at this composer -- for his technical awkwardness, which borders on the spectacular; for his provincial New England crankiness; for the way he throws in quotations from other pieces ("Bringing In the Sheaves" and "The Battle Cry of Freedom" are favorites) to wrap up a passage, in rather the same random fashion that the Monty Python troupe will drop a cow on a character who has become tiresome.
All that said, and many faults of construction forgiven, there is genuine majesty in the "Concord" Sonata, and nobody else, in my experience, has brought it out so convincingly as Nonken. Her secret, I think, lies in her steadfast refusal to italicize Ives's modernism. Other pianists, impressed by the fact that the composer was messing around with tone clusters, polytonality and long passages of unremitting dissonance early on, treat these innovations as the central fact in Ives, belaboring them with the single-mindedness of a dog with a squirrel in its mouth.
Nonken recognizes Ives's experiments as part of a whole, and not necessarily the most interesting part, either. On a purely artistic level, invention is much overrated: If it were all that mattered, Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Edison would be ranked as great filmmakers. What Nonken emphasized in the "Concord" were lyricism, continuity and organic structure, and for once, the piece held together as a work of art, rather than as a mere glossary of effects. In her hands, the close of the "Emerson" movement, in particular, sounded like great music by anyone's standards.
Boulez, who turns 80 this year, is now infinitely better known as a conductor than as a composer, his associations with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony having eclipsed his long-ago stature as the leading figure in the French postwar avant-garde. Nonken began her program with Boulez's "Incises" (1994, expanded in 2001), the composer's first work for solo piano since the Sonata No. 3 in 1957.
I prefer Boulez's pieces for orchestra, which permit him to explore and meld disparate sonic colors with an all but unparalleled ear. But "Incises" is charged with a bright, cold, hard brilliance, like a spray of crushed ice. It is dense with events -- even when it is silent for a moment, Boulez's music never really "rests" -- but also far more generous in its emotional expression than much of his earlier work. Nonken proved a persuasive champion, all flash and agitation.
Jarvinen's "Four Rosicrucian Preludes" proved a set of lovely, straightforward proclamations, in what the composer described as the style of Erik Satie. Their musical language is mostly consonant, their rhythms stately, their mood alternately teasing and genuinely touching.
Dench's "passing bells: night" (2005) was described as a musical response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which should not be held against it. This is neither anguished threnody nor jingoistic march, and while it may have been inspired by horrors, it does not exploit them. Rather "passing bells: night" is a sustained meditation, throughout which a deep, moist tintinnabulation resounds. Nonken made the most of its dark poetry.