When Pedja Muzijevic walked onto the Simons Center Recital Hall stage at the start of his Music in Time program on Thursday, it was clear that he was among friends. The audience, peppered with performers from all areas of the Spoleto Festival (especially the chamber music gang), cheered and whooped as he smiled and bowed between two grand pianos.
Muzijevic sat at the stage-left piano and opened with Joseph Haydn's Sonata in D Major, a sunny, light-footed piece from 1794 that was never published. It was, the pianist noted, "probably composed for somebody's dinner party." That is, it was not meant to be played in a place like the Simons Center Recital Hall, but in a much more private setting. With this buoyant introduction, it was as if Muzijevic was welcoming the audience to his own dinner party. With his graceful performance, he turned the 254-seat recital hall into a small gathering of friends, assembled to experience music together.
After the first sonata, Muzijevic explained his goal in creating the "Haydn Dialogues." As a performer and scholar, he is fascinated by the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects, and elements. What does it mean to pair old and new, when all music was new at some point? A composition written a week ago still requires the performer to go back in time.
"I believe instrumental music is the original abstract art," he said. "It is whatever you want it to be."
Muzijevic compared his fascination with odd pairings to cooking. He is, like his chamber music pal Geoff Nuttall, a self-proclaimed "Haydn fanatic." He said he could have easily played four Haydn Sonatas, but that would have been a bit like having a hamburger after meatloaf - he wants a little fennel in between. In a nod to his surroundings, he noted that the Charleston staple of shrimp and grits seems nonsensical on principle, but is ultimately a delicious pairing.
There was no hidden message to be found in the "Haydn Dialogues," Muzijevic warned. He did not pair these too carefully or too deliberately. They were meant only to delight.
The first pairing was Jonathan Berger's "Intermezzo," composed at Muzijevic's request in 2015, and Haydn's Sonata in G Major, composed in 1784. The contemporary piece was considerably sharper tonally, and far more jarring to the ear than the sprightly opener. But when paired with the G Major sonata, vague similarities began to emerge.
Next, Muzijevic paired John Cage's percussive "Bacchanale for Prepared Piano" (1940) (weather stripping, one screw and one bolt were woven into the second piano's strings) with Haydn's Sonata in G Minor (1771-73). Before playing the "Bacchanale," he read a piece of Cage's writing in which the avant-garde composer meditated on 32 questions about the nature of music, sound, silence and communication.
The program concluded with what Muzijevic said was the most "close to conscious" pairing: Morton Feldman's "Two Intermissions" (1950) and Haydn's Sonata in C Major (1794), both of which explore silence.
Muzijevic offered little in the way of guidance as he moved from piece to piece. Some attendees might be tempted to search harder for direct lines of comparison, but they will be disappointed. That's not the point. Had Muzijevic spent the program's spoken moments lecturing his audience on the finer details of harmony, counterpoint and technique in each piece, the real connections between them — and indeed between all musical compositions — might have been lost.
The "Haydn Dialogues" is a testament to the idea of music as an experience that doesn't always warrant a clear explanation. The connections between Muzijevic's pairings are exactly as you hear them, and exactly as your neighbor hears them. Whether your experiences match matters less than whether or not you both enjoyed yourselves. It is possible to take "serious music" too seriously, and with the "Haydn Dialogues," Muzijevic invites us to savor.
To extend the cooking metaphor: the exact ingredients matter less than their combined effect. Most of us don't spoil an invitation to dinner party by pestering our hosts with questions about what spice gives a dish its sweetness, or what technique was used to bring out the bitterness in the vegetables. Not that there's anything wrong with such questions; chefs both amateur and professional may thrill at such details. But isn't the point more often to enjoy the meal? By that measure, Muzijevic's "Haydn Dialogues" is like tapas and a julep on the piazza on a summer night: simply delightful.
Reviewer Sarah Hope is a freelance arts journalist and critic from Raleigh, North Carolina.