Focus Festival opener provides illuminating journey from Joplin to Crawford Seeger

Tue Jan 25, 2022 at 11:59 am
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg, were performed at Juilliard’s Focus Festival on Sunday.

Along with so many other things, the Juilliard School’s Focus Festival is back for 2022, with an opening concert Sunday evening and five more programs to come this week. 

Organized by Joel Sachs, who conducted the New Juilliard Ensemble Sunday, and played piano, Focus is reliably one of the finest explorations of modern ideas in music. This year’s theme is particularly brilliant and meaningful: “From ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ to the Prepared Piano: The Making of American Music, 1899-1948.”

Scott Joplin’s wonderful Maple Leaf Rag was indeed the first thing heard Sunday, and though this concert didn’t culminate in any of John Cage’s prepared piano music, it did lay out the concept for the series with convincing ease. To be fair, the argument is easy to make. It doesn’t require didacticism or polemical arm-twisting to show how this range of American music, both chronologically and aesthetically, is a seamless story. One only has to play and hear Joplin and Charles Ives and Henry Cowell together to have the continuum of American music made whole and clear. To those composers, Sachs added some terrific spice in the form of Edgard Varèse’s Octandre and Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg, by Ruth Crawford Seeger.

One of the things that make the Focus Festival so satisfying is that beyond the music-making they are illuminating and informative. Rather than skimpy annotations in most concert programs—or none at all— the Focus booklet is a quasi-monograph, full of insights and opinions from Sachs. 

But Focus 2022 in no way relies on arguments on the printed page for success. Reading Sachs’ line, “A broader significance of 1899 lies in how it reminds us that ‘American Music’ signifies more than what is performed in the concert halls,” after the concert ended just reinforced what the ears had already heard and understood. And that is the fundamental connection, forged by experimentation and innovation, between popular and classical music in America.

Starting with Joplin—chamber arrangements by some of his contemporaries of Maple Leaf Rag, Sugar Cane, A Ragtime Two-Step, and the underrated yet fabulous The Ragtime Dance—and continuing with Ives’ two Ragtime Dances laid a foundation strong as reinforced concrete. The basic human impulses in making music are singing and dancing, and if European classical music from before Bach to Mahler and beyond can build so much music on the basis of dance, so can American music, just with our dances.

One heard both the natural affinity between Joplin and Ives and also how good the young musicians are with the jauntiness and spirit of Joplin and the more complex, abstracted rhythms of Ives. It’s a commonplace that ragtime was an essential fuel for modernism in American popular music, far less so in classical music, but even with a pause to reset the stage, the combination and the two composers sounded like an extended medley.

Music from Cowell finished up the first half, but in between came Octandre. Varèse’s modernism is more immediately associated with his use of timbre to organize his compositions, and the sound of this woodwind piece was uncannily close to the ragtime arrangements for the type of band one might have heard at a gazebo in the late 19th century. Joseph Jordan played the lead oboe part with substantial musicality, an almost singing quality. The rhythms were there too in the performance, abstracted further from Ives but still holding the syncopated spring that began with Joplin.

With Cowell, there was a late program change: unable to get reliable parts for the composer’s Sinfonietta, Sachs substituted the chamber piece Polyphonica and two piano works, Aeolian Harp and Tiger. The piano pieces are exciting music, the first for strummed strings and the second based on tone clusters and forearm smashes, and they show Cowell’s importance. Sachs took a beat to get going on the piano and then the sonic provocations and beauty of both works came out with great energy. Polyphonica shows the romantic side of the composer, and the complex rhythms fit the theme of the concert. Even with what was likely little rehearsal time, it was a clear and convincing performance.

The second half opened with Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs. Written in 1930-32, this is astonishing music, making one regret even more that Seeger largely gave up composing shortly after. Fronted by the charismatic singing of soprano Britt Hewitt, this terrific performance showed how the composer knew how to fit architecture and expression together in thrilling ways. 

One was first captivated by the regimented and mysterious rhythmic structure, part Ionisation and part the mysticism of Dane Rudhyar, then bowled over by hearing Sandburg’s plainspoken toughness in Seeger’s lyrical lines and Hewitt’s full voice:—“Why is the grave of a rat no deeper / than the grave of a man?”; “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.” The piece piled innovative details on each other, like the upfront group of soprano, percussion, oboe and piano, accompanied in the back by a chamber ensemble, and sounded like one of the finest if little known examples of American music, bringing together street life and experimentalism.

The finale was Ives’ Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting.” This felt valedictory in both meaning and performance. The previous pieces had been shooting off in different conceptual directions, while the symphony was both a consolidation for the concert and a literal one in Ives’ career. One enjoyed the gentle, warm sound of the chamber orchestra, even as the musicians seemed to feel less at ease with Ives’ polyphony and complex harmonies than they had with his rhythms. Still, there was spontaneous applause after “Chidren’s Day,” and one felt together with the musicians in appreciating how, without Ives and this piece, events like Focus 2022 would never come to be.

Focus 2022 continues through Friday. Juilliard musicians play Cage, Piston, Cowell, Sessions, and Copland 7:30 p.m., Tuesday in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Concerts are free but require tickets.

Leave a Comment

" "


 Subscribe via RSS