IN: Reviews

Drury’s Experiment and Invention


On the evening of Tuesday, January 18th, Stephen Drury stormed onto the stage of NEC’s Jordan Hall in a scarlet shirt and black leather pants to greet an audience of less than fifty people. The small numbers of devotees who braved the weather to attend the recital were not disappointed: a mere two hours later, almost all fifty stood in an ovation to the pianist.

Drury’s piano recital on Tuesday evening consisted of works that I love to hear and think about; works where it’s not necessarily clear that the composers are writing in an established genre, confidently innovating and forging ahead on centuries-old discourse. In some way, all three of the works programmed for Drury’s recital had a sense of experiment, constantly trying to re-invent the way we experience music.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze is a perfect example. The work prominently features Florestan and Eusebius, characters the composer created to represent the extroverted, (Florestan) and the introverted (Eusebius) sides of his personality in dialogue with each other. Drury approached these works with direct elegance, faithfully reading the inherent drama and lyrical lines of the pieces with a sense of improvisation, almost as if we, along with Drury, (maybe even Schumann?) were examining each experiment to see what happens when we add too much or little of Florestan here, too much Eusebius there.

This sense of experiment continued in Christian Wolff’s Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida (after Holly Near), a reflection on a song off of Holly Near’s album “Imagine My Surprise.” Based on a lament for women imprisoned and killed by the junta in Chile, Wolff’s work is strikingly internalized: the slightest hints of melodies almost immediately dissipate into fragmented textures and new themes. Drury’s approach to this music was strangely mechanical: just as I grew accustomed to one form of melody, Drury immediately changed and presented another iteration, yet another color, yet another texture to interpret and cope with. Yet the overall affect of this ruthless menagerie is somehow one of listless sorrow, a dystopic reflection on the tragedy of loss.

Tuesday’s program concluded with Ives’s Concord Sonata. The sonata frames a five-note descending theme embedded in melodies that surrounded the composer: vaudeville, symphony (Beethoven’s fifth hovers prominently throughout the piece), twelve-tone and all form of Americana. Drury’s performance was not without its life — at times vivid, at other times evocative. But beyond that, Drury was staid and unsentimental, understanding that trying to interpret and add to this complex nostalgia is like barging in on a conversation we’re not welcome to join.

Yet the entire experience of the Concord Sonata was complex. Fenwick Smith, playing flute backstage, joined Drury in the final movement as the five-note motive coalesced into a haunting melody: “All de darkeys am a-weeping,/Massa’s in de cold, cold ground” — Stephen Foster’s Down in the Cornfield. It’s hard not to fall in love with the sheer beauty of Ives’s composition, to give in to the memories the work conjures. But sitting in an audience almost a century after the piece was conceived, a mere day after observing Dr. King’s birthday, it was hard to ignore the tension between the America we live in now and the foreign world Ives is describing in his work.

As the final notes from the Ives’s faded into silence (before the heartfelt applause of the evening’s select audience), I couldn’t help but realize how rare a recital Tuesday evening’s really is: certainly in how well the music was performed, but beyond that, and more importantly, how thoughtful the music in the performances and how beautiful the ideas behind them.

Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.

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  1. As reluctant as I am to reply to a review of my own work, and as appreciative as I am for Sudeep Agarwala’s otherwise excellent and complimentary review, I have to point out: Charles Ives used Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground” (which is the title of the song; the lyrics of the phrase quoted by Ives are “down in the cornfield”) as a reference to the abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement – all the Concord transcendentalists referred to in the “Concord” Sonata were known abolitionists; Ives’ abolitionist sympathies are well-documented (his father and father-in-law both served in the Union army, his grandfather worked for the abolitionist cause) and Ives also referred to this struggle in his piece “The Anti-Abolitionist Riots”. Stephen Foster’s work clearly has complicated implications, but he was very possibly an abolitionist and worked to correct what were at the time understood to be racist implications in the performance of his songs. The understanding of racism is indeed a long, long journey.

    Comment by Stephen Drury — January 27, 2011 at 8:56 am

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