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Pianist Eric Huebner Tackles Charles Ives' Monumental Piano Work

Concord Sonata at the Burchfield Penny

Buffalo will host a festival devoted to the music of the American composer Charles Ives next week. A highlight of the first part of that festival will be the performance of his daunting Concord Sonata for piano by Eric Huebner, staff pianist for the New York Philharmonic and a professor of piano at the University at Buffalo, at the Burchfield Penny Art Center on Friday April 10 at 7:30pm. A few years ago pianist Jeremy Denk was scheduled to perform this work on the late, much-missed Ramsi P. Tick concert series, along with Beethoven’s equally challenging Diabelli Variations, in a mind-bogglingly difficult program. Denk apparently had second thoughts about it, and while he performed the Beethoven, he skipped the Ives. As a result, there has not been a local performance of the Concord Sonata in decades, thus making this concert a must event for any lover of American classical piano music.

Ives was inspired to compose his sonata by the writings of the mid-19th century American authors known as the transcendentalists, specifically Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, naming each of the four movements in his sonata after one of them. For this performance baritone William Sharp will interpolate readings of passages from the writings of the transcendentalists between movements.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is now generally regarded as the first modernist American composer to gain an international reputation, but that was not always the case. Early in 1921, several hundred Americans were surprised to receive a pair of unsolicited books in the mail. As David C. Paul writes in his book Charles Ives in the Mirror: “The larger volume, the typical size for a musical score was titled Second Pianoforte Sonata, with the subtitle Concord, Mass., 1840–60, and for it the largest lettering on the sparse front cover had been reserved—larger even than for the name of the composer, Charles E. Ives. The second, smaller book, entitled Essays Before a Sonata, contained only prose, but it was attributed to the same Mr. Ives.” The name was unfamiliar to all but a few of the recipients, who were all somehow prominent in the American classical music community. With this vanity press publication, Ives, who worked full time as one of the owners of a very successful insurance company while composing music in his spare time, began his 40 year journey from obscurity to fame.

“I was first encouraged to learn the piece by Jerome Lowenthal, my teacher at Juilliard,” says Huebner, “but this will be my first time performing the work in its entirety. I have recently performed ‘Emerson’ and ‘The Alcotts,’ the first and third movements of the Concord Sonata in recital, as each movement is such a substantial musical statement that it can be performed on its own. I think the influence of the Concord Sonata was mostly in establishing the primacy of the piano sonata in the 20th century—in particular as a statement work which was capable of defining a composer’s interests and style. Certainly composers like Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Samuel Barber were hugely influenced by Ives. Not only did they compose piano sonatas which continue to be regarded as master works to this day, but they were inspired by Ives’ ambition to create an entirely new kind of American music, fashioned from musical elements, including hymns and folk songs, already present in American culture at the turn of the century. Of course American modernist music would evolve and change rapidly throughout the century, but Ives’ ambition and spirit of exploration and experimentation has remained the starting point.”

Tickets: $10/$5 members


The Return of Mental Radio

Last May at the Black Box Theatre in Babeville, to an overflow, standing room only house, UB professor of cello Jonathan Golove premiered his Mental Radio, an electronic chamber opera based on Upton Sinclair’s 1930 book, Mental Radio: Does it Work, and How? In Mental Radio, Golove featured the revolutionary, unearthly sounding musical instruments of the Russian inventor Leon Theremin, including the more widely known theremin itself, and the far less known theremin cello, an instrument that he helped resurrect and on which he is the world’s leading performer. Golove also drew an interesting parallel between Sinclair’s account of his testing of his wife’s purported telepathic abilities and the use of new technologies to reveal and enable the human potential for music making.

Mental Radio was conceived as an interdisciplinary, multimedia event, yet for its premiere the focus was necessarily on the music itself. In the best futurist tradition, Golove has created a second version of Mental Radio with the collaboration of video/media artist Sergio Nieto and musical futurist Rochus Aust, for a performance at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on Thursday April 9 at 7pm. Nieto brings both a refined visual sensibility and an expertise with the Kinect and Leap Motion systems for translating human movements into graphic imagery. Aust, who is traveling from Cologne, Germany to perform in Mental Radio, offers a wealth of experience presenting performances in unconventional spaces which engage the public in quite direct and participatory ways. He is the principal architect of a futurist musical instrument known as the “Stromorchester” (Current Orchestra), an array of sound-producing machines controlled by means of various interfaces including industrial multi-channel dimmers.

Admission to this event is free.

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