The homages that we have heard before are beginning again, as Roger Sessions reaches his 85th birthday, and as American musicians cope with the Sessions dilemma. They continue to reserve for Sessions an excruciating paradox: a vast reputation versus their continuing resolve to write off his works as meaningless to a general audience.
Last night's fine concert of the three piano sonatas by Rebecca La Brecque at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was an event that both confirmed this situation, in the paucity of its attendance, and gave lie to it, in the ardent intensity of the performances.
If you know Sessions' name and do not know his music, before listening disabuse yourself of at least one misleading stereotype. This is no compositional radical who is trying to bring down the traditional assumptions of music, in the manner of Cage and the various figures who have wandered in and out of his circle over the years.
It is helpful to know, particularly in the piano music, that the composer who most influences Sessions' musical thought is Beethoven, for whom the composer has a reverence that few must ever have matched.
So the general framework of Sessions is not all that difficult for the listener. It is the idiom with which he operates in that framework that is difficult. But in these sonatas, the extent of the difficulty even then is exaggerated.
The first of them starts with and returns to material that is almost startlingly easy listening. It is the material of a Chopin nocturne, a flowing bel canto melody in the treble and arpeggios in the bass. The harmonic twists are bold, but then so were Chopin's. But do not misunderstand; there is a major difference, the harmonies do not resolve, and before long we are off onto one of Sessions' long, long melodic lines. It is these long lines without resolution, whether melodic or rhythmic, that present one of the most formidable challenges. Another is the density of the harmony, or the intervals.
And, finally, there is the mighty technical challenge to the pianist. There is in Sessions much of the headlong ferocity of Beethoven, and as the volume and the intensity build, the demands on both pianist and piano are extraordinary. You have to reach for a work like Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata for a reference point.
Will these piano works have a wider audience someday? If they are played as well as they were last night, I don't see why not. In a very broad sense they are like the Charles Ives sonatas, which took many decades to find an audience. The analogy, of course, utterly breaks down when you start comparing nuts and bolts of the two composers, but in historical terms it makes sense.