Assimilation In Music



When Charles Ives composed “The Unanswered Question” in 1906, he certainly had no idea of the lasting effect it would have on a century of music.  The work adamantly foreshadows the contrast and ambiguities of the 20th Century music, in composition and character.  The 92Y explored contrast in music with a series of engaging concerts last year.  Pianist, Jenny Lin’s recent program entitled “The Art of Transcriptions and Arrangements” performed at SubCulture, was yet another exercise of comparison through affinities rather than contrast that revealed the constant thread in music from Bach to Gershwin.

The program cheerfully grafted two distinct genres of music, the classical and the popular, while spanning 300 years of musical history.   Transcriptions, which is the re-writing of a musical composition for an instrument or voice for another, were featured in the first half of the performance.  Arrangements from the Great American Songbook comprised the second half of the program.   It is important to distinguish the two but in essence transcriptions and arrangements are one composer’s love affair with another, the spirit of sympathetic comprehension.  As one put it, “a genius freely playing the work of another.”

The famous Bach Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 was the first offering.  A popular slow dance Bach plucked from the peasantry of the Baroque period has seen many transcriptions, most prominently by Brahms, Busoni, and Schumann.  Busoni’s effort unveils an intimate understanding of the work.  Dissertations have been written about Bach’s Partita No. 2 and the fascination continues to spur interest in a famous connection between the Baroque and the modern era.

The Bach Chaconne in D minor is one of those instances of greatness, easily recognized.  Miss Lin played the sobbing last passage, an elegant search for the enlightenment of diatonic structure, with fresh concentration.  The lyrical beauty of the work stands against time as the grand dialectic of life, itself unfolds.  A work of great poetry manages to knit together the various passions of man.   The Chaconne was the heart of the program.

The renowned operas of Verdi (1813 – 1901) gave the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) great fodder for operatic fantasies and paraphrases de concert.  The transcription of the passionate quartet from Act IV of Rigoletto is famous.  In the hands of Liszt, the dramatic consequences of the scene are lightened by a gay sensibility.  The Romantic composers such as Verdi and Liszt replaced the clarity of tonality intrinsic to Bach’s age with the expressive power of chromaticism.  Miss Lin handled the technical challenges of the material with confidence.  There are many notes to hit.

Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962), was a prodigy of pre-war Vienna, a period that is marked by one of my favorite German articulations, gemutlich, which is to say that everything is in its place to produce peace of mind and coziness.  Sergei Rachmaninoff  (1873 – 1843) transcribed Kreisler’s popular composition for violin, “Libesleid,” (Love’s Sorrow), for solo piano.

I found a poem online dedicated to the “Libesleid”, and it is worth quoting a portion of it here as it aptly summons the emotion of the waltz.

The notes float like wood shavings
settling on cuckoos

through the window the
world mounds in whiteness,
softer than a young girl’s skin
or an ermine muff with a white velvet cape.

drapes our stage with a snowy symphony
that backdrop to our winter waltz

What is sweeter?

-Gay Reiser Carron

Here in the depths of February, in an underground space, what could be more appropriate.

The second half of the show focused on the uplifting works from Jenny Lin’s 2012 album “Get Happy.”  These works reflect the ineluctable charm and sentiments of show tunes.  A romp through classic compositions for the stage and screen by Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers and George Gershwin, to name a few.  Noone can refuse the cheer of “My Favorite Things” and “Embraceable You.”  The arrangements and Lin’s performance had a way of making the seemingly “old fashioned”, new.

The program as a whole can not be taken lightly.  There is an interesting precedence established by the Bach Chaconne, of tonality and syntactic clarity that is broken down into atonality of the modern age.  But within the syntactic confusion of the Romantics and superfluous sentimentality of show tunes one can see that seed of Bach germinating, always.  Diatonic structure is never fully forgotten, a psychological structure internal to every melody.  What is good is repeated and in that repetition we find assimilation.

March 13th, 2014
New York, NY