Every pursuit has its apogee.
In mountain climbing, it’s Everest. In urban architecture, it’s the skyscraper. In the culinary arts, it’s best use of black truffle or bluefin tuna.
Many pianists with the proclivity to examine 20th and 21st century repertoire might identify Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata as the holy grail. Even the most experienced musician will marvel at the dense clusters of black ink in the score. Even the most adventurous musical thrill seekers will shrink away from the promise of transcendence and suffer something more akin to an existential crisis.
Enter Conor Hanick, a particularly courageous swashbuckler of the piano who favors difficult contemporary works with notation Mozart would never comprehend. Hanick, who performed two days earlier the stunning “Book of Sounds” by Minimalist composer Hans Otte, has decided that this is the time to check the Concord Sonata off his to-do list.
Maybe it was too soon.
The work is in four movements, each named for American Transcendental writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau. Like Otte’s “Sounds,” the Concord Sonata demands intense concentration, superhuman dexterity and stamina worthy of a tennis champion forced to play a dozen or more games before claiming his prize.
The music lunges and soars, clamors loudly then subsides to a lyrical whisper, only to rise again like a volcanic explosion. It’s as if the music of Franz Liszt melded with American folk tunes then got refracted by a large pane of glass with many zigzagging cracks. It’s intense dynamic contrasts, enormous swelling phrases, smashing chords and lightning-fast runs and arpeggios surely would intimidate any mortal pianist.
Ives inserts all sorts of references, including quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Hammerklavier Piano Sonata. Instead of Fate knocking at Man’s door, it’s Man knocking at Fate’s door, Hanick pointed out in his introductory remarks.
And as much as Ives asked the piano to do, the instrument was insufficient to fully express all he needed to say: a viola (played Tuesday by Jacob Shack) sings out briefly at the end of the “Emerson” movement, and a flute (Zach Sheets) offers the melody, intact, at the end of the last movement, “Thoreau.” (Tidbit: Thoreau played the flute, and Louisa May Alcott wrote a poem called “Thoreau’s Flute.”)
Performing the sonata is a little like mountain climbing without the proper safety equipment. You thrust yourself upward then enjoy a bit of valley view before forging upward once again. And this is no minor peek. Indeed, Transcendentalism was partly about confronting nature and all that it might throw one’s way, rejoicing in the raw beauty of the sensual experience and redefining the Divine.
Hanick performance was a feat of endurance and the result of deeply invested admiration. But he omitted the second movement, “Hawthorne,” citing sore arms.
“I’m sorry to say the piece has gotten the better of me in the last couple of weeks,” he told his eager listeners at the start of the program. There was something about “Hawthorne” that twisted his muscles in uncomfortable ways.
I still give Hanick high marks for his intelligence and singular musicianship. The Concord Sonata is an ambitious undertaking for any pianist, and it’s evident that Hanick is close to transcending its unique difficulties. Hawthorne surely can wait a little longer.