Classical, Main Stage, Piano

Jeremy Denk and Stefan Jackiw Explore Charles Ives this January

Pianist Jeremy Denk has long relished tackling the thorny works of American composer Charles Ives. Well known for his thoughtful writing on music at his blog Think Denk, he delights in the deep dive into Ives’s music.

He told The Boston Globe in 2010, “Ives wants to re-create the raw experience of music-making, something unfiltered, and beyond all your piano lessons; though writing fiendishly difficult piano music, he wants you to remember there is something more important than just ‘playing well’; while driving me crazy, he reminds me why I play the piano at all.”

He’ll remind us all of that lesson when he and violinist Stefan Jackiw partner for an incredible evening of music-making on January 26 at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Denk will expand on Ives with a spoken introduction before they perform Sonatas Nos. 1-4 when he will touch on Ives’ desperate nostalgia and thematic elements in the works. They’ll be joined by the five singers of Hudson Shad, an all-male a cappella ensemble who will perform various hymns and songs before the performance of the sonata in which they are quoted.

Credit: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Denk is quoted as saying, “It’s not [the] so-called historical importance that makes me love the music. There is a terrific tenderness emanating from this dissonant, difficult music: a tenderness for experiences of childhood, for the ‘uneducated,’ fervid hymn-singing of camp meetings, for the silliness of ragtime, for the quaint wistful corners of ballads.”

He expands by saying, “There is a correspondingly enormous wit: the love of crazy musical mishap, a love of syncopation, disjunction, mash-up; the merger of opposites. He recreates, almost like Proust, a whole world for us: the musical world of America in the last part of the 19th century. He evokes a tremendous nostalgia for that world, while making it alive again.”

Violinist Stefan Jackiw is equally enamored with Ives and his craggy violin sonatas.

He says, “I was introduced to his music through Jeremy; his love for Ives is infectious. We both felt that an entire program of Ives immersion makes listeners more at home with his modernist language and more attuned to the Romantic ideals such as nostalgia and memory that fill these sonatas.”

Jackiw is also enthusiastic about performing with Hudson Shad, anticipating that the ensemble will add an element of personal reminiscence. “Ives’ musical remembrances from his childhood take the form of musical quotations of hymns and folks tunes that he listened to while growing up in New England, and we wanted to hear these hymns in their original form, before hearing Ives’ musical homages to them,” he says. “We’re joining forces with the vocal ensemble Hudson Shad, who will be singing the hymns and folk tunes interspersed with our performances of the sonatas.”

Of their 2015 performance of the same sonatas, The New York Times was captivated by the performance, remarking, “Mr. Denk’s playing exuded affinity for Ives and vivid imagination. Mr. Jackiw, deftly balancing fervor and elegance, beautiful tone and earthy colorings, proved a comparably inspired Ivesian on this exciting night.”

Jackiw hopes the program will draw listeners to Ives’ humor, earnestness, and, most of all, the heartbreakingly desperate longing for the past that fills each of these four sonatas.

“This bittersweet, and sometimes even tragic, nostalgia is, for me, what makes Ives’ violin sonatas so profoundly affecting,” he adds. “I hope audiences come away from this performance thinking of Ives as the ultimate humanist.”

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