Good morning, geniuses!
Which of these stars doesn’t belong here: J.S. Bach, Max Bruch, Charles Ives, Robin Williams?
The answer is Bruch, a hardworking composer who knew how to please his sponsors, collect the paycheck and secure the next assignment. He doesn’t belong in the company of the ones who -- disparaging those who rejected their work -- tore off the ceilings of their minds and charged into the deceptively chaotic stratosphere of their talent.
This was something to consider while listening to the brilliant pianist and scholar Jeremy Denk, in a Tanglewood recital whose first half was Ives’ Concord Sonata and whose second was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Denk belongs in this company too, by the way.) No brain-boundaries.
Each movement of the fabulously difficult Concord portrays a different famous resident of a single New England town. Within the confines of a sonata, Ives conveys Emerson's transcendentalism, festivities on Hawthorne’s jokey express train to Heaven (a small board tapped on the keyboard makes raucous tone clusters), the comfort of the Alcott home and hearth, and Thoreau’s immersion in nature. A flutist joins in at the end -– impractical but showing Ives’s refusal to tolerate the norms of a piano sonata -- or any musical form.
Ives’s masterpieces -- the best ever written by an insurance man in his spare time -- often extrude from the format, adding something, or someone, who shouts comments or plays a tune. You don’t like it? Your loss. “Don’t let the ears lie back in an easy chair,” he warned. “Good morning, Vietnam!” (Oh sorry, wrong genius.) Denk played the notorious sonata from memory, in an offhand manner that made it look possible (though we all know it is not).
The only one ignorant enough to be put to sleep by Bach’s fabulously difficult Goldberg Variations was Count Kaiserling, who commissioned them for his insomnia. (Goldberg was the guy they hired to play them.) The 30 miniatures are intricate puzzles: canons at the second, third and so on, differing moods, meters, degrees of weird tonality and, just before the end, a free-for-all with a folk song about how I hate your cabbage and turnips, that’s why I ran away. "Na-Nu Na-Nu!” (Oops -- another zany virtuoso tearing off the ceiling of his mind.)
In choosing Wednesday’s Ozawa Hall program, Denk nimbly linked the essential Bach and Ives. Denk’s belief in the music, and love for it, transports him into its world, and he took the full Ozawa Hall audience with him. Both composers (oh yes, and Williams too) could be boisterous, gentle and lots else. Denk conveyed all of it, even making the piano sound like a faraway harpsichord.
How could there be an encore? How about early Schumann, one of the Davidsbundlertanzes, bringing out its tender filagree. Easy! Not.
In photo: Jeremy Denk performs a program featuring Ives' Concord Sonata and Bach's Goldberg Variations in Ozawa Hall on Wednesday night (Photos by Hilary Scott)