For the Record – Charles Ives: First Piano Sonata
Written by Melbourne-based pianist Leigh Harrold
Leigh will be performing with SYZYGY in Brisbane on Saturday 7 June 2014: TRIVIUM: The Art of Logic, Rhetoric and Grammar
I’m quite glad I never met Charles Ives, although I’m incredibly grateful that he existed. Cantankerous, homophobic and stubborn-to-a-fault, he nevertheless wrote some of the most forward-thinking and philosophically-probing piano music of the twentieth-century.
His second piano sonata, the so-called ‘Concord’, is far more well-known than his untitled first. And yet it’s to the first sonata that I find myself returning again and again for enrichment and inspiration.
Ives’ backstory is as interesting as his unorthodox music. Growing up in the USA in comparative musical isolation in the small town of Danbury, Connecticut, his primary source of musical stimulation was his eccentric (but always encouraging) father, George, who would get his children to participate in such brain-stretching musical experiments as singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in several keys at once, or musically notating a thunderclap. With no establishment to scold him against ‘improper’ means of composition, the precocious Charlie grew-up to accept the avante-garde as normal, anticipating in his works devices such as polytonality and serialism way ahead of his European counterparts, simply because he didn’t know he shouldn’t be doing it!
The First Piano Sonata for me captures perfectly this duality of naïvety and innovation. In purely technical terms, this is about as difficult as piano music gets, requiring an unprecendented range of colours, intellect and facility from anyone brave enough to tackle it, as well as plenty of stamina (it clocks in at around 40 minutes). Ives really was writing with all the capabilities of a Steinway concert grand in mind! And yet it’s subject matter is simple – it’s about the day in the life of one nameless man as he goes about one unremarkeable day in New England as filtered through Ives’ nostalgic lens. The work’s five movements take us through the day: the work opens at dawn, with a morning trumpet reveille across the lake and a motley community band tuning their instruments and attempting to play together. The remaining movements respectively take us to lunch at the pub, a local baptism, some post-baptismal celebrations, and the contemplation of nightfall.
What makes the piece so wonderful, while contributing to its substantial difficulty, is Ives’ fastidious notating of all the blemishes and imperfections that make up the musical life of a small town. So in the first movement, one pianist really does have to sound like two ends of a marching band getting out of sync with each other:
(the band gets revved up around 3:15, the wheels start falling off just after the 4:00 mark)
Later, in one of my favourite moments of the work, there is a drunken, discordant climax where a mob of revellers attempt to sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ in a rendition that (almost literally) brings the house down:
(the rabble starts to sing at 2:20, hilarity ensues)
The piece incorporates all manner of styles from traditional romanticism through to gospel, ragtime, impressionism, and straight-up atonality. Comparisons can definitely be made with James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the banal is turned into sprawling high-art.
But for me, what I adore is the humanity of the piece. The sonata is epic because Ives believed that every life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was special and was worth shouting about. Currently I’m exploring the violin sonatas of Ives with my contemporary music group Syzygy Ensemble in preparation for a performance in Brisbane for DeClassified music in June (2014), and we keep discovering exactly these notions again and again. For all its forward-thinking, this is music that actually looks backwards – nostalgic for times that were more personable and interactions which were more meaningful.
To anyone who feels that contemporary music doesn’t have a strong emotional core, I can offer no better recommendation than to explore the music of this wonderful composer, and see how ‘challenging your mind’ and ‘tugging at your heart’ don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts.
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Leigh will be performing with SYZYGY in Brisbane on Saturday 7 June 2014:
with Syzygy Ensemble (Melbourne)
Saturday June 7th, 7pm @Blue Sky Coffee, Newstead
presented by DeClassified Music
“I stand energised not only by the quality of the art Syzygy presents, but by their youthful dynamism, their unrelenting directness, and the strength and singularity of their artistic vision.” Ilario Colli, Limelight Magazine
The musicians of Syzygy Ensemble share a deep empathy with music of our own time as well as an unbridled desire to share this enthusiasm with audiences in a way that may stretch your ears but never slap you in the face! We’re unwilling to wait 100 years for the world to catch up with what composers are doing here and now, and we’re excited to take you on the journey with us as we find and prepare contemporary music that speaks to all of us with relevance, authority and passion. Since winning first prize in the chamber music section of the Australian Concerto and Vocal competition in 2010, Syzygy has gone on to tour, perform, mentor, educate all around the country, unearthing the best and most exciting music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The ensemble has performed at the Gaudeamus Interpreter’s Award in Holland, for Brisbane’s DeClassified Music, the Mildura Arts Festival and is about to enter its 4th year as an ensemble-in-residence at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Please join us for a ride that may be strange and unfamiliar, but always exhilarating and enriching.
Leigh Harrold (piano)
Blair Harris (cello)
Robin Henry (clarinet)
Laila Engle (flute)
Jenny Khafagi (violin)
Fausto Romitelli: Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero (Sundays at the edge of the empire)
Charles Ives: Sonata No.4 for violin and piano
Elliot Hughes: New Work
Toshio Hosokawa: Stunden, Blumen (Hours, Flowers)
David Dzubay: Kukulkan II
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Leigh Harrold enjoys a reputation as a “musician of rare talent and intelligence”, and is one of Australia’s busiest and most sought-after pianists since being named The Advertiser ‘2008 Musician of the Year’.
Born in Whyalla, South Australia, Leigh completed undergraduate and post-graduate studies at The University of Adelaide with concert pianist Gil Sullivan. During this time he had many successes, including being a National Finalist in the Young Performer Awards and a recipient of the prestigious Beta Sigma Phi Classical Music Award – the conservatorium’s highest honour. He moved to Melbourne in 2003 to take up a full scholarship at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) under the mentorship of Geoffrey Tozer and in 2004 was made the Academy Fellow – the first person in the institution’s history to be chosen as such after just one year of study.
Leigh has performed extensively throughout Europe, North America, Africa and Australia as both soloist and chamber musician, including concerts at Australia House in London, the Royal Academy of Music, the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Harare International Festival of Arts, and concerto engagements with many Australian orchestras. In 2007 he undertook an extensive tour of the United States and Canada where he gave lectures on and performed the solo piano music of the American composer Robert Muczynski.
His international reputation as an associate artist has led to collaborations with such luminaries as Thomas Reibl, lecturer in viola at the Salzburg Mozarteum; Michael Cox, principal flautist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Gaede, ex-concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; London flautist Wissam Boustany; New York violinist Charles Castleman; Swedish cellist Mats Lidstrom; and British pianist Mark Gasser, to name just a few. Other significant international collaborations have included performance and studies with Andrew Ball at the London Royal College of Music; Sophie Cherrier at the Paris Conservatoire; New York-based pianist Lisa Moore and English composer Peter Maxwell Davies. In June 2002, Leigh traveled to the Orkney Islands to perform a concert of Maxwell Davies’ works in the presence of the composer.
Leigh is a founding member of the Kegelstatt Ensemble and the contemporary music group Syzygy Ensemble – both winners of major national awards – and has an internationally acclaimed piano duo with London-based pianist Coady Green with whom he regularly tours through Europe, Australia and Africa. He is a recording artist for ABC Classics and in 2010 released his debut recording for Sony with soprano Greta Bradman.
An enthusiastic and committed teacher and speaker, Leigh is regularly invited to tutor and lecture at many institutions and has given many masterclasses around Australia, Africa and the USA. He is currently on the Associate Faculty at ANAM, and performs regularly as orchestral pianist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. When not seated in front of a piano, Leigh finds time to go on long walks, practise yoga, read voraciously, write musical articles and programme notes, and drink lots of coffee.
In April 2012 Leigh was awarded a PhD for his research into the music of Robert Muczynski. Additionally, he holds two University medals – one for Music and one for Applied Science.