Pianist John Jensen

jensenBy Scott MacClelland

A FIRST-RATE VETERAN keyboard master, John Jensen, gave a small Carmel Valley audience an entertaining survey of 20th century piano music beginning with Charles Ives’ unique “Concord” Sonata. Sunday afternoon’s recital, at the Hidden Valley barn theater, also included Homage to Florestan and Eusebius by Donald Betts and Reflections by Carleton Macy, both of whom were present. In a program aptly titled “Homage,” the Ives pays tribute to American “transcendentalist” authors Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts (father and daughter) and Thoreau, the Betts constitutes twelve “Fantasy Moments” on a Schumann motif and the Macy contains twelve discrete movements honoring composers from JS Bach to Harold Arlen.

I am tempted to say none of these pieces has been performed in the region before—but I may be wrong about the Ives, which, often gnarly and dissonant, is still a great piece. Clocking in at 48 minutes, and dotted throughout with the famous four-note motto from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, its long first movement, Emerson, opens and closes with in-your-face rhetoric. This material frames a lyrical central section—lyrical at least in the right hand—pestered by dissonance from the other end of the keyboard. What emerges is, like both Emerson and Beethoven, a transcendental portrait of rugged individualism, the romantic notion that distinguishes the New England writers during the 1840s and ‘50s.

The movement titled Hawthorne is effectively the sonata’s scherzo, a wild pastiche that skitters from one idea to another with little that glues them together. Early on, a cluster stick (as associated with composing experimenter Henry Cowell) created its own peculiar dissonant timbres. With its hymn tune allusions and references to popular songs and marches (including a bit from that Ivesian hoot, Country Band March) the movement is actually a self-portrait of the composer by way of boyhood memories. The Alcotts, at five minutes the shortest and gentlest of all, is even more given to nostalgia. Lastly, Thoreau is seen at Walden Pond on an autumn afternoon, an impressionistic scene that opens and closes in mist. While Jensen raised its dissonant passages I have heard those bits downplayed by other pianists. (Jensen has performed both Ives sonatas many times and recorded them, so his approach does come with considerable authority.) To the uninitiated listener, “Concord” can bewilder, yet it does honor forms and procedures of the classical sonata. Indeed, it inspired another American, Henry Brant, to successfully orchestrate it into a “Concord” Symphony.

Born in 1929, Donald Betts has enjoyed acclaim as a formidable concert pianist himself. Paying homage to Schumann comes as no surprise when you survey his concert programs over many years. (In his book on Schumann, Florestan, Robert Haven Schauffler argues that the motif in question actually originated with Clara Wieck, who would later become Schumann’s wife.) At 18 minutes, Jensen played it more or less as one continuous suite. Lasting ten minutes longer, Macy’s Reflections echoed a keen style sense of his subjects, who included Hugo Wolf, Chopin, Webern, Schubert and others. Additionally, his music displays clarity of form and transparency of textures.

Jensen’s amusing encore was George Antheil’s Can-Can from his 1934 score for choreographer Georges Balanchine.