Kalish finds fascinating common ground with Ives and Janacek

Fri May 01, 2015 at 3:51 pm
Gilbert Kalish performed at BAM's Next Wave Festival Thursday night.

Gilbert Kalish performed at the Rose Studio for the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center Thursday night.

A little more than a year after Gilbert Kalish played an astounding and magnificent interpretation of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata at the American Academy, he played the piece again Thursday night.

At the American Academy, Kalish was part of a concert of various Ives’ chamber pieces, in commemoration of the Academy installing the composing studio from Ives’ Connecticut home into their galleries. Thursday night, Kalish had an entire recital to himself, as the finale of this season’s “The Art of the Recital” series for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

And rather than the large concert hall of the Academy, the pianist played in the intimate Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Studio. The “Concord” Sonata took up the second half of the program, and the first opened with George Crumb’s Processional and world premieres from two composers who are colleagues of Kalish at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, all music written expressly for the pianist. The nominal outlier on the program—the sole non-American piece—was Janacek’s de facto sonata In the Mists.

But the Czech and American composers were not far separated by anything other than geography. In the Mists and the “Concord” sonata are contemporaneous with each other, and both composers wrote out of a fascinating and contradictory psychology. Janacek and Ives held inside themselves a deep appreciation for the classical tradition, while simultaneously disregarding the demands of that tradition if their values compelled it. They were each concerned with vernacular sound and style, and they each occupied a rich fantasy world of idealized memories, made more poignant by the shards of self-awareness that tore at and undermined their dreams.

Kalish’s approach brought the composers closer together, mediated by his musical sympathies and wisdom. The pianist’s sense of touch seems unerring, each note sounds with what appears to be the exactly correct amount of weight. It helped that he had a fantastic instrument at his disposal, a Steinway with a warm, rounded tone and a pleasing warble to its decay. (It offered a relief from the overbearing brightness of so many concert pianos in New York, and put the focus on the music, rather than the details of the pianist’s technique.)

Kalish is an unusually self-effacing musician, he lets the music speak without the self-conscious poetic sense that he is part of the show—we are invited to listen and regard his admiration for the music. He disappears inside the music in the best way, becoming the engine that gives life to the notes that surround him.

In Janacek’s piece, which the pianist described accurately as one of the most beautiful of the early 20th century, that meant playing with a flowing pulse a bit faster than usually heard, and with strict adherence to the composer’s tempo modulations. The aching, yearning romanticism is obvious in the music, and exaggeration usually dilutes it. Every detail of Kalish’s judgment seemed perfect, like the emphasis on the key dissonant tones in the second movement chorales, and the absolutely feroce e stringendo (fierce and accelerating) way he played the descending high note runs in the final movement. Details like those make Janacek the unique composer he is, and one may listen to recordings of the music for decades without hearing such a deeply affecting performance.

The “Concord” Sonata was as affecting as it was last year, though different from both Janacek and last year’s performance. The intimacy was enhanced by Kalish reading selected lines from Ives’ Essays Before a Sonata. The brief, but important accompaniment from violist Mark Holloway in the “Emerson” movement, and flutist Carol Wincenc in the “Thoreau” finale (each sitting at the back of the room), was conversational, rather than celestial rhetoric.

With Kalish, the technical complexities of the sonata fall away, leaving the emotional and intellectual essence. He played from phrase to phrase with the most logical flow, each connection moving the music to deeper, stranger places. There was no exaggeration, especially in the open-form beginning of the “Hawthorne” movement.

Kalish’s musical temperament held equal appreciation for the mystical strains and the rambunctious parade music. The “Alcotts” movement was not just gorgeous but full of repose, and Kalish’s steady left-hand pulse in the finale brought the previous forty minutes of music together into technical coherence and profound expressive mystery.

Kalish played everything else with the same appreciation and commitment. Crumb’s piece is an excellent blend of the plain and punchy with the esoteric, starting in simple, pleasing, waves of chords, and then moving towards increased dissonance and fanfare-like pronouncements. Kalish gave it a combination of steady motion and punctuated equilibrium.

The two new works were co-commissioned by the Chamber Music Society, and both were involving and a pleasure to hear. Perry Goldstein’s …shreds and patches… is a series of fragments, all less than two minutes duration. They are like jazzy etudes; Goldstein eschews the futility of trying to notate swing and instead lays out his material immediately and then develops skillful, fascinating extrapolations, with hints of Cecil Taylor, Monk, Chopin, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Sheila Silver’s Nocturne, Based on Raga Jog also combines the best virtues of improvisation and composition in music that incorporates the style of Hindustani classical music. While one misses the non-western, expressive microtonality of the original, Silver skillfully normalizes the music for the piano while maintaining an evocative vocal quality. The music has a purely expressive quality, with a rocking, bluesy, harmonic motion. Kalish played each new work with intense involvement, he made them sing.

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