Pianist John Jensen

By Dana Abbott

PIANIST JOHN JENSEN presented a concert of American music at Hidden Valley on Monday evening, September 24. The program had a dual focus—with material from the first half of the 1900s and two pieces of recent manufacture from Monterey Bay composers.

First up was Carl Ruggles’ Evocations, four short pieces for piano written in his disciplined serial style dating from about 1940. The works were suggestive with angular, unresolved harmony. Yet they did not grate on the ears owing to brevity, varied tempi, careful inventive chord sequences and control of density in the writing. The skill and attention of the composer resulted in an open, airy feeling. Slow working and meticulous, Ruggles produced only a small body of methodic music; Jensen reported that all of Ruggles’ material only takes about 90 minutes to perform. These four brief pieces were modern yet refined, proof that “manufacture” can produce evocative music.

Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata dates from the same time as Ruggles’ Evocations. Jensen demonstrated the harmonic foundation of the piece and noted that it had actual key signatures, meaning scalar tonality. The Sonata is long, about 25 minutes, but dramatic with a slow-fast-slow design. Copland’s chords are complex, open, “airy,” using the full range of the piano. There is little simple tune, but much melodic interest from development of repeated note patterns, especially in the balletic dance motifs of the second movement marked Vivace. For the attentive listener there is plenty of structure including the half-step cadence, which signaled the end of the piece. 

The printed program was a single sheet with the concert order on one side and brief material about the performers on the other side. A brief spoken introduction was offered for each piece as well. Carleton Macy, who produced the concert, had discussed his long association with pianist Jensen in opening the concert. Macy, a music professor retired to Monterey Bay, provided a description of the next piece, his 2, saying that he was pleased to have Jensen and local pianist Rick Yramategui to ably perform it, a work for single piano, four hands.

Macy’s 2 was in two sections, Memory and In the Everpresent. As he explained, the first section evolved almost inadvertently from the tune and harmony of the Dies Irae, from the funeral mass, a source for many composers and often adapted to more secular material.

The result was a delight with sustained rhythmic drive, melodic material, skillful piano voicing aplenty and just the right amount of standard harmony to please the audience and make one want to hear it again, with equally gifted performers. 

Rick Yramategui, a local composer of increasing skill wrote his Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano in 2016. He has performed it with Farkhad Khudyev, who was on hand to perform it well once again with Jensen at the piano. Yramategui reported that his inspiration came from Carleton Macy who suggested that Rick put the 12 tones of the Western scale separately in a bag and select three of them to develop a theme. Yramategui chose five. His result is inventive and pleasing. The audience was surprised, and delighted, when violinist Khudyev managed to conclude the piece satisfactorily despite a broken E string near the very end, changing only the sonority of the closing notes. 

The final scheduled piece was Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No.1, written in the early 1900s. Jensen reported it was prepared for publication in the late 1940s by local (Aptos) resident Lou Harrison, also a composer of skill, working from Ives’ original manuscript. Jensen also noted Ives’ principle occupation was as an insurance salesman, at which he was quite successful. Ives served as an organist in a local New England church which explains the use of Bringing in the Sheaves and What a Friend we have in Jesus in two of the five movements of the Sonata. Ives alters the hymn tunes with creative freedom or, perhaps, abandon.

Ives’ piano writing is dense, often with thick, packed chords. The Sonata might have alarmed listeners were they to hear it about the time it was written, but by 1949, when William Masselos premiered it, it was not likely to cause a riot. Jensen pointed out that it ends with a plagal sequence, a chord progression relating to the Amen ending often found in church music. Yes, indeed it did, but typically, Ives added a few other notes to season the pot. 

Jensen provided an encore, Thelonius Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie, a bit of jazz completely consistent with the modern harmonic language of the concert.

In short, a fine evening with challenging yet pleasing listening for all who attended.