Cuckson and Iverson celebrate (mostly) American music in Brooklyn

Mon Jun 25, 2018 at 11:55 am
Miranda Cuckson performed with Ethan Iverson at the Modern Piano Festival Sunday night in Brooklyn.

Miranda Cuckson performed with Ethan Iverson at the Modern Piano Festival Sunday night in Brooklyn.

Glenn Cornett’s Spectrum venue moved last year from his apartment on the Lower East side to a converted garage across Flushing Avenue from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Steinway concert grand is gone, but the new space sounds even better—warmer and more intimate. Plus, the exposed brick of the analog industrial design has a touch of concert hall formality that focuses greater attention on the music.

The dedication to engaging creative musicians and giving them responsibility for the programs remains.

This month, numerous pianists have brought in a wide-ranging repertoire and Sunday night pianist Ethan Iverson came with a collaborator, violinist Miranda Cuckson. The two played violin sonatas from American composers of the last century, and each took a solo turn.

This was one of those events where the high quality of the music was enhanced by the circumstances and individual musical personalities. Iverson has been one of the leading pianists in contemporary jazz for more than a decade, especially as an original member of the innovative trio The Bad Plus. His dip into classical music is not without precedent—there is Keith Jarrett–but his immediate focus on music in and around the high modernism of the post-WWII period is out of the ordinary.

The Violin Sonata by Louise Talma and George Walker’s Sonata in One Movement bookended the concert. In his introductory remarks, Iverson showed a deep personal interest not just in the pieces but in the personalities of the composers. These are worthy compositions that have been lost in the shuffle, as he pointed out, and just hearing them was a benefit.

The sonatas both came from mid-century (1958 and 1962) and are representative, as the pianist emphasized, of a certain American style of the period, using both counterpoint and 12-tone rows. What he didn’t talk about, but what came through clearly, is that the pieces shared an expressive sensibility, another prominent feature of American modernism.

This was music not only about its own workings but about something, and it’s in that style of expressive modernism that Cuckson excels. Her command of the music was there as always, but what made her playing so impressive was the sense that she had clear feelings about the music and crafted her phrasing to convey that meaning.

Iverson was not consistently satisfying when accompanying Cuckson. The violin is first among equals in both works and Talma’s writing heightens the counterpoint between the two instruments by giving the piano a percussive part beneath the violin’s lyricism. That suited the pianist’s manner, but there were moments when the musical logic demanded more legato or a greater variety of touch than Iverson delivered.

The two instruments are in much more direct sympathy in Walker’s lovely sonata, and in that Iverson sounded just right. While it’s impossible to assign exact meaning to something as abstract as music, Walker dedicated the piece to his mother, and the performance left a strong feeling that the work was full of the expression of poignant things for which words are inadequate. 

Cuckson was just as impressive in Donald Martino’s Romanza and in the more experimental Caprices No. 1 and No. 4 by Salvatore Sciarrino. She switched to a lighter bow, so as to get that special sound of Sciarrino, with gestures and notes rising out of a whispery bed of sonic activity. Her concentration in these and in a new work, Aperture Perpetuum, a post-Sciarrino etude from young composer Josiah Catalan, was stimulating.

Before the Walker sonata, Iverson played his own solo mini-set, in his metier of jazz improvisation. His three short, spontaneous pieces (he even made up the titles on the spot) offered a barrelhouse blues with extended chords, a gently aching ballad that looked back at Bill Evans, and a Lennie Tristano-ish perpetual motion invention that was as hip as it was exciting.

The Modern Piano Festival continues at Spectrum through July 1. On Friday night, Dan Tepfer appears at 8 p.m., and Teodora Stepančič at 10 p.m. spectrum.concerts

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