Jeremy Denk spotlights overlooked composers
Pianist to play ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins and Coleridge-Taylor at Thursday recital
What: Jeremy Denk recital
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Thursday, Aug. 19, 7 p.m.
How much: $75
Tickets and more info: aspenmusicfestival.com
Like so many artists and musicians grappling with their responsibilities in the movement for Black lives and social justice, pianist Jeremy Denk has committed himself to learning new repertoire, reading about the lives of composers who had been silenced by history and sharing them with audiences.
“Both for myself and my students, we are playing a lot more music by composers that we wouldn’t have normally paid enough attention to,” Denk said said earlier this summer in a phone interview from Santa Barbara, where he teaches at the Music Academy of the West.
On Thursday night in the Benedict Music Tent, Denk – an annual fixture at the Aspen Music Festival and School – will give a recital spotlighting works by Black composers.
The program is bookended by Bach’s Partita No. 5 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, while the meat of it is an exploration of pieces Black composers: Coleridge-Taylor’s “They Will Not Lend Me a Child” from “24 Negro Melodies;” Blind Tom Wiggins’ “The Battle of Manassas” and Scott Joplin’s ragtime “Heliotrope Bouquet.” The recital also includes and Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” from the recently deceased composer’s “North American Ballads.”
Last summer, Denk heard a student at the Music Academy of the West play Rzewski’s 1979 piece, which commemorates 1930s textile mill workers protesting their working conditions.
“I said, ‘This is an amazing piece and has such a powerful message,” he said of hearing it for the first time.
The Civil War era Wiggins piece was a quarantine discovery for Denk, who read a July 2020 New York Times essay by composer George Lewis about overlooked Black composers. Wiggins, who was born into slavery and became a superstar of his time, was among them.
To Denk’s ear, the Rzewski and Wiggins were ideal companion works to serve as the backbone of a recital that might help more to hear Wiggins and others.
“The Wiggins piece is such an incredible companion to the Rzewski and also, historically, it’s shocking how ahead of its time it is,” Denk said.
Wiggins, known in his day as “Blind Tom” – he was both blind and autistic –Denk noted, was prefiguring the creative advances of modernism by several decades. Untangling the historic significance of Wiggins’ work – commemorating the Confederate battle victory in Virginia – is also important, Denk believes.
“Its message is so complicated,” he said. “To imagine an enslaved person writing a potboiler – a popular piece – about the triumph of the Confederate Army, you can only imagine what he was thinking and how it must have felt to perform that piece and have success with it.”
Overall Denk sought to bring a balance of the violent thrills of Wiggins work and the more peaceful melodies exemplified by the Coleridge-Taylor work from 1905.
Denk compared Coleridge-Taylor’s approach to Grieg’s and Bartok’s use of source material, “taking folk music from your native tradition, or from various traditions, and translating it and bringing it into the quote-unquote classical world.”
Denk’s program includes the second performance of a work by Coleridge-Taylor, the neglected 19th century Black British composer, whose Clarinet Quintet was staged in the tent last month by chamber musicians led by Michael Rusinek.
Closing the program with the Beethoven sonata, he said, aims to mirror the sonic and stylistic juxtapositions of the evening.
“The first movement is all this kind of restless, striving music that doesn’t really know where it’s going or what its goal is,” Denk explained of Beethoven 1821-22 sonata, “then the last movement is this incredible balm or an antidote to all that restlessness.”
With the Aspen Music Fest in its closing week, the recital includes one of the anticipated high points of a season-long emphasis on composers of color. This season marked the public launch of the festival’s initiative to spotlight diverse composers who identify as AMELIA (African-American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian), itself the product of three years of evaluating diversity, equity and inclusion at the festival as well as canon-expanding scholarship and research by the festival’s artistic administration.
About 75% of performances this summer have included works by AMELIA composers.
Denk opted to open the evening with the Bach partita from the 1720s, he said, to start on a joyful note. He also hopes listeners will note how well Bach’s syncopated melodies play alongside the ragtime and popular styles elsewhere on the program.
“We’ve had such a sorrowful year that I wanted to begin with what are the most joyful pieces I could possibly think of,” he said. “A lot of the music on this program is sorrowful or tragic in nature. I wanted something uplifting – to start anyways.”
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